College Hill Early Learning Center

College Hill Early Learning Center

A yearslong effort to unify the Manhattan-Ogden school district’s early learning programs is wrapping up. Program administrators said the changes have helped them provide more equitable education for the district’s preschoolers.

The Manhattan-Ogden school board heard an update Wednesday on the district’s early learning program.

The district’s Early Learning Community Task Force has worked at combining the district’s various preschool programs over the past three years. Those programs include the district’s Head Start, at-risk and special education programs, which use federal and state funds. Families who don’t meet the criteria for those programs can also enroll in the district’s early learning program, but they have to pay monthly tuition. As of this school year, the district’s early learning communities now mix students from those programs, rather than separating students by funding source.

Elisabeth Nelson, early learning director, said 79% of the program’s children either meet at-risk criteria or have an individual enrichment plan, which means that they have a disability.

“It’s a tough population of kids to serve,” Nelson said. “They come to us with high needs, but when you start putting these labels on kids, it’s easier to start lowering expectations or think that kids can’t do things. Behind these children are the same bright brains that every other child has. They are able to learn, ready to learn, excited to learn, but they may not have all of those same experiences leading up to their preschool experience to help them reach their fullest potential.”

The district is still working out a few kinks in busing, food service and other logistics, but Nelson said the changes will help make sure that every child in the district has an equitable opportunity to learn.

Under combined programs, the early learning centers have focused on setting higher goals, Nelson said.

The program set a goal to bring the percentage of 4-year-olds showing strong progress in sound identification in spring assessments to 50% in the 2018-19 school year, almost doubling the 29% benchmark in 2017-18. They fell just short at 49%, Nelson said, but the program will continue progress on reaching higher goals.

A similar goal was to reach 50% in number naming, up from 41% in 2017-18, and the program surpassed that goal with a rate of 53% in 2018-19.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with our preschool team over the past few years talking about the commitment and what it really takes to move kids, especially kids who have the odds stacked against them. That’s what preschool teachers do every day,” Nelson said. “They come in and they move mountains, and they work with a lot of kids, but it’s not enough to just say we want them to learn or hope they learn — we have to have a plan to go with that, and there has to be accountability for that.”

The board also approved a request for bids to partially demolish the College Hill Early Learning Center. Demolition work will avoid the portion of the building that is over a century old, and by bidding out the work now, district officials hope to make work on the rest of the project more efficient.

College Hill operations are temporarily relocated to Trinity Presbyterian Church during the $8.4 million project, which will leave the center with a new secure entrance, 16 classrooms and administrative offices. The project is being paid for with money from the bond issue approved by voters.

Construction is scheduled to start in November, with a tentative completion date a year later. A similar project at Eugene Field Early Learning Center starts in June and wraps up September 2021.

In other business, the board voted to fire Randy Nivert, a security officer at Manhattan High School, effective Aug. 22.

Nivert had attended the high school as a student in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a 2016 MHS Mentor article, and he was hired on as an assistant teacher in 1997. He became a security officer during the 2015-16 school year, according to the article.

District officials declined to comment on Nivert’s firing, citing confidential personnel matters.