Encompass, schools working on kindergarten partnership

Oconto Falls district may locate 4-year-old class at new child care center
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

Oconto Falls School District officials are working on a proposal to collaborate with child-care provider Encompass on 4-year-old kindergarten programming that may take place at the nonprofit’s new Oconto Falls center in addition to Abrams and Oconto Falls elementary schools.

Encompass is currently in the process of renovating the former Kaempfer and Associates building, 650 Jackson St. in Oconto Falls, to convert it into a child care center. It will be the organization’s eighth center and its first in Oconto County.

Superintendent Dean Hess summarized the district’s conversations with Encompass, to “give the board information to mull over” before bringing a proposal to the board’s next regular meeting Feb. 12.

Hess estimated that administrators have been talking for around four years about collaborating with a child care organization on a 4k program, but it did not seem feasible until Encompass moved into the county.

“About 18 months, we started having more serious discussions and working on an action plan,” Hess said.

Encompass told Oconto Falls administrators that in other districts where they have collaborated on 4-year-old kindergarten services, such as Pulaski and West De Pere, the district has seen an increase in the number of families who want to participate. School attendance is not mandatory in Wisconsin until 5-year-old kindergarten.

With an agreement with Encompass close, the district set up a kindergarten registration page on its website, www.of panthers.com, which was scheduled to go live Jan. 15.

“If you have a child that you’re anticipating joining us next year, we’re asking that you to get on there and get registered, so we can determine the number of students we have, the better we can support those requests from families,” Hess said, in part addressing parents who might be watching the school board meeting on YouTube.

“Rather than wait until the need presents itself, we’re trying to do some of the work ahead of time, so if (the Encompass collaboration) comes to fruition, we’re not totally building the plane while we’re flying it,” Hess told the board. “We’re hoping to at least have some of that plane built.”

One of the options, if the district does experience a need to increase the number of its 4-year-old kindergarten classrooms, is to locate a new section at the Encompass center in Oconto Falls. The district would hire the teacher who would work at the center.

Hess admitted the idea of collaborating with an outside agency has caused a measure of anxiety among existing staff.

“I mean, there’s a lot of potential change here,” he said. “With that in mind, we are thoughtful that we would recommend the model that we would be doing the hiring, because we would have a little bit more control over the process.”

The teachers providing 4-year-old kindergarten classes at Abrams and Oconto Falls should be assured their jobs are safe, and next month’s recommendation will probably include hiring a full-time-equivalent kindergarten teacher, Hess said.

“There’s way more what-ifs than we have answers for right now,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to try to be thoughtful in our anticipation, and then over the next six to eight months, we’re going to get that information and then adjust accordingly.”

Hess said the district is confident it will be able to budget for any first-year startup costs involved with the Encompass partnership, but getting a handle on parent interest is part of the planning process.

“The sooner they register, the faster we are able to start getting a better understanding of what our need’s going to be,” he said.

The bottom line is that Oconto Falls appreciates Encompass’ plan to come to town, Hess said.

“We want to work with them in a collaborative way to help them to flourish in our community and also sustain in our community, because we know that child care has been a significant need for years,” he said. “So we appreciate the effort they’re involved in, and they’re committed to this collaboration.”

The goal is for the new child care center to open June 10, shortly after the school year ends, Hess said.