Vancouver Public Schools in Washington has increased educational opportunities and kindergarten readiness by offering free evening preschool.
Launched three years ago at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, the program—which uses existing kindergarten classrooms and teachers—now operates at nine elementaries with 170 students.
The initiative provides preschool access for families who cannot participate in traditional daytime classes due to work schedules and other issues, says Debra Hale, executive director of elementary-level teaching and learning.
“We’ve found that it’s tough to offer something once a day and meet everyone’s needs” says Hale.
The inspiration to offer evening classes came to pre-K teacher Kendra Yamamoto late one night, after she had been approached repeatedly by working parents who were interested in preschool. “I went right in the next day to my boss and told her my idea” says Yamamoto. “She stopped me midsentence and said, ‘We’re doing this. I don’t know how we’re going to fund it, but we’re going to do it.'”
Yamamoto received a one-time $1,300 AASA grant to launch two eight-week sessions for 30 students. The program’s immediate success led to continued financial support from the school board and private donors.
Building a program
Teachers work from a template developed by Yamamoto and instructional partner Kelly Mainka. Program days and lengths vary by schools, and according to staff availability and community need. Programs typically run two evenings per week for six to eight weeks, from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The curriculum is the same as in traditional daytime preschool. The district provides dinner and a family engagement session wherein parents and children participate in basic skill-building activities such as number and letter identification.
Yamamoto recommends starting small and rolling out slowly. The Vancouver program became so popular that it stretched resources a bit thin. Educator duties have since been shifted to accommodate demand.
Sensitivity and responsiveness to parents is also important, says Hale. For example, this year the district offered an evening preschool event in Spanish, which was well-attended.
Teachers and paraeducators are paid for their participation. Supplies and other operational costs tend to be minimal, especially considering the ROI, says Hale.
“If you think of the impact on 30 five-year-olds and their families in terms of readiness for school for that initial $1,300, there’s probably not any stock market investment that will pay as well” says Hale. “And with dinner!”