Many people say their community offers some form of preschool education - through a large center, a religious organization, or an in-home setting. However, a closer look at the state’s early childhood offerings shows affordability and access are not equal around the state.
A thousand people across the state completed the SDPB online survey. There were separate virtual focus group interviews. The effort was a collaboration with the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided funding for the project.
South Dakota KIDS Count tracks and analyzes data concerning children in the state. Xanna Burg is the South Dakota KIDS count coordinator. She says U.S. Census survey data shows 42 percent of South Dakota children are in some type of early education program. That means that 58 percent are not in preschool.
Burg “Is it because parents made that decision themselves, is it because the parents don’t have other options, or is it because parents can’t afford preschool? So unfortunately, we need better data in order to understand and be able to support young children and families.”
One organization is trying to remedy that data problem. The South Dakota Association for the Education of Young Children has an online tool which collects information from agencies and stakeholders across the state.
Janessa Bixel is the organization’s president. She says South Dakota lacks a central state agency to gather data on early childhood programs. Bixel says South Dakota is one of the few states that does not regulate or license preschools.
Bixel “Somebody can say they are a preschool, but they could sit down and just give the kids worksheets all day and they could call that learning but that is absolutely not developmentally appropriate for early childhood. Early childhood children should be learning through play.
Bixel says the state is now creating a better system to regulate and track early childhood education.
She says quality early childhood education doesn’t require a large preschool center or public school setting. It can happen at a private daycare, at a church preschool, or even at home. What’s important is that children learn through play.
Bixel says, “Having children social and emotionally ready and able to utilize their fine motor skills. You know and follow directions, things like that. That is so much more important than the academic development going into kindergarten.
For some young students, pre-K programs can make the transition to school, easier.
Daniel says, “You do see those kids seem to start to grasp on to the academics more quickly just because they have more of that social, emotional piece.”
Cher Daniel is the Principle at Rapid Valley Elementary in Rapid City South Dakota. Rapid Valley is a Title 1 school - forty percent of its students come from low-income families. The school has a pre-K program for 3 to 5-year-olds paid for with special education money. It mainly serves children who have developmental delays. But can accept about 4 students per class without special needs as long as they come from a qualifying school district.
Daniel says there’s a waiting list for the program - which suggests an unfilled need.
Daniel says, “We’ll get a call; they usually get a parent call about once a week just asking do, we have a preschool is there room? So, definitely we see need based on the phone calls that we get.”
The state tracks only limited data on early learning programs, but there is one organization with solid numbers. That is the federal Head Start program. Xanna Burg with KIDS Count says American Indian Children make up about 56% of the state’s Head Start enrollment.
Burg “And this is likely because there are 8 tribal Head Start programs that tribes located within South Dakota run. So really this data underscores the importance of Head Start for these tribal communities.”
One retired tribal educator agrees. Chris Bordeaux spent most of his career teaching gifted and talented students at tribal schools. He says Head Start is a good program but with limited spaces, many families end up on waiting lists. He also says one problem with Head Start is that its requirements can exclude people.
Bordeaux says, “I remember when our oldest daughter was in Head Start, you know, we didn’t have any problems with that but when our youngest daughter came along our income was higher and she was not eligible for Head Start.”
Bordeaux says tribal communities don’t have many other options for preschool besides Head Start. He says the children who lose out on learning skills early on can get left behind and that sometimes affects the rest of their educational career.
The SDPB survey confirms early childhood education is available for Native American children through tribal-based programs like Head Start. However fewer programs are generally available for tribal communities.
SDPB’s statewide survey is part of an initiative from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Coming Home project supports deeper understanding of rural places. The information will be released to the public June 1st. The Chiesman Center at USD hopes governments, businesses and nonprofits will make use of the data.