4K program at Encompass approved

Oconto Falls School Board hesitates on scrapping the district’s Kids Station program
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

The Oconto Falls School Board wants to take a little more time to decide about closing its Kids Station before- and after-school child care program now that Encompass Child Care is about to open a center in the city.

During its regular monthly meeting Feb. 12, the board tabled a decision on Kids Station until it has more information about how to serve the families who currently depend on the service at Oconto Falls Elementary School (OFES).

Kids Station would still be available at Abrams Elementary School, which is located 14 miles away from the Encompass facility, scheduled to open in June at 650 E. Jackson St. in Oconto Falls.

Superintendent Dean Hess explained that Kids Station was established several years ago to make up for a severe lack of child care centers in the area. For the last two years, Encompass has been working to open the center in the former Kaempfer and Associates building, expecting to provide care for up to 140 children.

“Kids Station has been a good thing for our community, I think, and it’s something that the school district created,” Hess said. “It was a way for the school district to be part of the solution, and we’ve done that. Now you have an opportunity where someone else can be meeting this need.”

The school district is not interested in competing with Encompass, he said.

“We are not in the child care business. We do child care with Kids Station because we had a need, and we want to try to help with that need,” Hess said. “If that need can now be met with Encompass Child Care, our proposal is that we not continue with Kids Station.”

Hess said he understands that creates anxiety for families, especially those who may not be able to afford the private nonprofit’s higher fees. But he added that Encompass does offer tuition assistance and will have more child-care openings that the school district now offers.

“The program that we offer is not as diverse as will be offered by Encompass,” Hess said. “We don’t open as early as they will, and we don’t stay open as late as they will be open.”

As families transition to Encompass, enrollment at Kids Station likely will decrease, and the district would have to increase fees to cover its costs, he added.

“It’s very difficult to know how everything’s going to turn out, because we don’t know exactly how many people are going to make the choice to go this route,” Hess said.

Board members expressed concern over whether families in Kids Station will be able to get into Encompass and perhaps get some support in making up the cost difference, at least during the first year.

Sarah Schindel asked whether Kids Station could be phased out at OFES over a year rather than closed right away.

“Not to undermine all of the hard work that our communities have done to get this here — the city, the school, the county — I want to be as supportive of Encompass as we can, but I also want to support the families that rely on Kids Station,” Schindel said.

Board member Emilie Trudell said that child care is not really the school district’s mission.

“We are here to educate our kids. Encompass is here to provide quality child care when our kids are not being educated,” Trudell said. “I’m not opposed to giving it a year, but I really want to start this partnership off on the right foot. … (Encompass) is going to impact our community for hopefully years, and I don’t want us to be competing with a child care provider, because that’s not our scope of work. Our scope of work is educating our kids.”

The board agreed to table the issue for a month until it has more answers.

It did approve a companion recommendation, to hire an additional part-time or full-time teacher if an anticipated increase occurs in the number of students in the 4-year-old kindergarten program, and to station the additional class section at Encompass.

“We anticipate having more students in our 4K program because of suddenly having this care option,” Hess said.

Often when parents get a job at the schools, HSHS St. Clare Memorial Hospital or other employers in Oconto Falls, they will enroll their children in neighboring school districts because of the lack of local child-care services, he said.

Encompass has found in other districts where they have collaborated on kindergarten program, such as West De Pere and Pulaski, there is an inevitable rise in enrollment.

“What Encompass is telling us it, it’s not a question of if this is going to happen, it’s a question of when,” Hess said. “Where they come into town and open up a care facility, you’re going to see your numbers increase, so you’re going to have to have a plan for that.”

An alternative is for the kindergarten teacher to be an Encompass employee, but Hess said having it be a school district employee “allows us to have a little bit more control over the system, where we’re doing the hiring, we’re doing the professional development. They would be interacting as much as we can have them interact with staff in the other building.”

He added that there’s no guarantee as yet that another section will be needed right away.

“If it turns out that we don’t have enough students in 4K registration to require this, we’ll stick with what we’re doing and push this back,” Hess said.