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Free northern Arizona preschool program elevates quality and affordability for families

Three preschool-aged children around a small table playing with blocks. One child is sitting with an adult, who is helping him.

Reginald Jackson knew his son Reggie was struggling. His son would come home crying or tell him he was unhappy at the child care that was caring for him. 

“As a single parent it’s hard to see all my money was going to a (child) care where he wasn’t happy,” Jackson said. 

After two to three months in care, child care providers would tell Jackson that his young son was, “too much to handle,” he said. 

Things changed when he learned of Elevate PreK. Jackson’s mother heard about a new free preschool program that she thought would be perfect for her grandson. 

Elevate PreK is a free pilot preschool program in Flagstaff and Page in Coconino County. The program targets 4-year-old children who are not currently enrolled in preschool and who live in households with income between 101% to 350% of the federal poverty level. 

“Affordable quality child care is a challenge in Flagstaff,” said Program Director of Northern Arizona Programs at Candelen, Beth Giacalone, the organization that runs Elevate PreK. “If you’re working a minimum wage job, you make too little to afford child care or preschool programs, but too much to qualify for subsidies or free federal preschool programs like Head Start.”

Coupled with the high cost of living in Flagstaff, many families are unable to afford quality preschool. 

“What happens is that families move out of the area because they can’t afford child care,” Giacalone said. “The worry for us in Flagstaff is that because everything is so expensive, we won’t be able to retain those young families in the community.”

In northern Arizona, talks about universal preschool blossomed around 2016 with a group called LAUNCH Flagstaff. The idea that all children deserve equitable access to high-quality early education turned into a three-year pilot program called Elevate Pre-K, which provides free, full-day, high-quality preschool to 36 children.

It started in 2021 with 36 children in Flagstaff in the first and second years. In the third year and final year, a classroom in Page was added, with 18 children being served in Flagstaff and 18 in Page. 

Reggie was part of a Flagstaff classroom at the Flagstaff Family YMCA in the second year.

“We got to this place (Elevate PreK) and it was the complete opposite of anything he’d experienced,” Reginald Jackson said. “It was amazing. He fell in love with Ms. Brandy. I’d never heard him say that he loved his teacher.”

The teachers at Elevate helped Reggie learn how to regulate his emotions, which is what the young boy struggled with in the past. Other teachers before Elevate “felt like they were annoyed with him. It was different (at Elevate),” Jackson said.  “If your kid is struggling emotionally, you want someone who can take care of them, make them feel safe and help. Everyone was loving on him and let him know that they were listening to him. It helped.”

The preschool program is currently funded through 11 grants from a combination of partners. Along with private foundation grants from partners, the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County used federal pandemic relief funding. The Helios Foundation is paying for the ongoing program evaluation, which will continue to follow the children, like Reggie, into elementary school. 

Reggie started kindergarten this year and his father said that he’s doing well. The skills he gained in preschool have continued to help him in kindergarten. 

“He still comes home talking about the cool stuff he learned and he loves playing with his friends,” Jackson said. “Preschool helped him get used to playing with people, getting to know people and how to figure out his emotions. He’s better at letting people know that he needs help when he’s struggling.”

A sustainability study is also currently being conducted to see how the preschool classrooms can continue beyond the pilot, which ends in May. 

The group is also looking south to Pima County’s Pima Early Education Program, which offers scholarships to quality preschools. It is funded primarily through county funds and local school districts, cities and towns.  

Giacalone is hopeful. 

“The collective impact group is reigniting efforts to make affordable, high-quality preschool available to everyone,” she said.

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