An estimate from the Sioux Falls School District shows about 350 children per year exceed federal poverty limits to attend Head Start, but preschool is too expensive for their families. The Sioux Falls Hope Coalition is a non-profit that partners with pre-schools and local businesses to provide that opportunity. With 150 students enrolled in pre-k in its third year, the Coalition’s leadership believes it won’t be long before it can give all Sioux Falls students a chance to prepare for kindergarten.
Rebecca Wimmer is the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Sioux Falls, one of the Hope Coalition’s newest partner organizations. She remembers the moment a three-year-old boy’s eyes lit up when a staffer showed him how to use a crayon.
“Those are things that even as an educator, you don’t really think about that being missing from someone’s experience until you see it in front of you. And then I think about, had he not been a part of Hope Coalition, what would that look like for him starting kindergarten two years down the road?”
Some state lawmakers argue it’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure kids are ready for kindergarten. Rich Merkouris argues it’s the community’s responsibility. He’s Chair of the Board for the Sioux Falls Hope Coalition. He says some families don’t have time or money to be sure their kids are prepared. And when kids aren’t ready for kindergarten, Merkouris says it costs school districts in additional staff and resources to help them catch up.
“It’s gonna cost us over the long run both in the education sector but also in the longer run economically in the community as a whole of where the person can get a job and so forth. So we’ve got a responsibility socially, morally—I’d argue as a pastor—and also economically to help children have this opportunity.”
South Dakota is one of a few states without state-funded preschool, but Sioux Falls Hope Coalition Executive Director Randell Beck says it’s not the government’s job to solve that problem. He believes the Hope Coalition’s model of collaboration can work in any community in the state.
“I think often to almost any challenge in a community it takes one or two people to just say, ‘Wait a minute! Let’s do this!’”
Beck points to research that shows long-standing benefits to preschool, including improved high school graduation rates. He agrees it’s the responsibility of the Sioux Falls community to ensure every child has a shot at preschool, regardless of their family’s circumstances.
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