Blair Community Schools (BCS) was awarded a Sixpence Early Learning Fund grant, which will contribute to high-quality early childhood learning programs.
The trustees of the fund announced last week that 11 early childhood partnerships throughout Nebraska will receive grant awards totaling approximately $2.5 million beginning Sept. 1.
BCS received an $85,000 grant, plus $25,000 in startup funds, to be used in the home-based/family engagement portion of its birth to 3 program, which matches families with skilled professionals trained to model and coach parents in high-quality, developmentally positive interactions with their youngest children.
The new grants were made possible through a funding increase for Sixpence proposed in LB 342 by Sen. John Stinner of Gering, Appropriations Committee chair. The proposal was subsequently incorporated into the state's mainline budget bill, allocating an additional $2.5 million per year to Sixpence for the next two years.
“The pandemic has put enormous pressure on our state’s early childhood system,” Stinner said in a press release. “In turn, that puts enormous pressure on the families who are responsible for raising the next generation of Nebraskans. Sixpence offsets some of those pressures by making quality child care and family engagement services more available to help parents guide the early development of their youngest kids.”
The funding increase is, in part, a response to the upheaval caused by COVID-19 in child care and other early childhood systems.
“It’s hard to overstate the pressure that the pandemic has put on parents who are trying to guide the development of their children while providing for their families,” said Stephanni Renn, who serves as Sixpence Administrator at Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. “The new Sixpence grant awards will help offset at least some of those challenges so more of our youngest kids are getting a stronger start in life.”
Ryan O'Grady, director of special education and student services for BCS, said the grant will allow the district to hire a new home visitor to help parents.
“Parents are their first teachers,” he said. “That's what the birth to 3, their philosophy is parents are a child's first teacher. Whatever we can do to help a parent be successful at being a parent.”
The district hopes to have the new at-home visitor in place by mid-fall. In the meantime, O'Grady said the birth to 3 team plans to meet with the Sixpence trustees as well as visit other Sixpence communities, such as Fremont.
“It's exciting. It really is,” O'Grady said. “Just to have another person to be a part of that. They just meet families that so many different hours of the day, throughout the summer, the work never stops for them. It's a year round program.”
Amy Tessendorf, a speech therapist with the birth to 3 program, said the grant will also allow the district to build partnerships within the community.
“We're constantly looking for resources in our community,” she said. “We do have service coordination on the special education side of it, but sometimes we're really looking for what does Blair have, what does Washington County have, what partnerships does Washington County have to share with Blair families. Sometimes our families don't get into Omaha for some of those resources that are coming from our service coordinators. We just want to make it more about our community.”
Tessendorf said she hopes the grant will also bring awareness to the birth to 3 program.
“When you think of school district, they think of when they walk in the door in kindergarten, but they are really walking in the door to our district when they are born,” Tessendorf said. “We really want to think about how parents need support even when they're not in a school building, they're still in our community.”
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