Early Learning Center

Students at the Early Childhood Learning Center playing on the school's playground in 2011. Photo by Steven King

CASA GRANDE — Kameron Bachert estimated her preschool gets up to 15 calls a day from parents wanting to enroll their children.

She’s the assistant preschool director for the Casa Grande Elementary School District and said there’s currently a waiting list for new students at the district’s Early Childhood Learning Center.

On Tuesday, the district’s Governing Board took the first step in fulfilling this demand by authorizing staff to establish preschool classrooms at Cholla and Evergreen elementary schools in the next school year.

The classrooms would take no more than 24 students. The district projects about half of the new pupils would be special-education students and the other half tuition-paying preschool students.

The two new sites will be a “Band-Aid” to fixing the demand problem, Bachert said, but the district believes expanding slowly is better policy.

The district had offered preschool classes at some of the elementary schools before moving the program over to the learning center in 2011. More than 200 students are currently enrolled at the facility. Nearly a decade later, the number of students who want to go there has outgrown the facility near Villago Middle School.

“We just don’t have the capacity to support them right now,” said Jennifer McClintic, the district’s director of learning support.

Studies show preschool education has positive impacts on a student’s academic performance later in life. And McClintic said the district’s noticed a difference in the students who have enrolled in preschool compared to those who didn’t.

But beyond academic performance, the district believes having more preschool classes could help CGESD recruit more K-12 students. The district’s been experiencing declining enrollment at its elementary and middle schools in recent years, which impacts how much money CGESD receives from the state.

Lower birthrates and the presence of more charter schools in Casa Grande have been listed as reasons for declining enrollment.

During a recent board meeting, the district projected a decrease to its average daily membership by 146 students. So administrators have been strategizing for the last few months on how to maintain operations with a possible reduction in state funding.

Though adding more tuition-paying preschool students may generate revenue, CGESD Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales said she believes the preschool expansion will likely “break even” in terms of finances. The district is looking to reassign existing staff to work in the new preschool classrooms.

More importantly, Gonzales thinks enrolling more preschool students allows the district to build a rapport with parents and prove to them why they should have their children in CGESD schools.

“Once they build a relationship with our schools,” she said, “they will be more likely to stay in our schools.”

The district hopes to add more preschool classrooms at other campuses in the near future. Information on how to enroll in the preschool program can be found on the district’s website.