After budget scare, CCS still looking to fill enrollment in Chugiak

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 14:23
  • CCS teacher Helen Bohn assists Chevelle Elder with drawing shapes at the center on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. (Photo for the Star by Rashae Ophus Johnson)

After being spared from state budget cuts that would have shuttered CCS Early Learning center in Chugiak, preschool is back in session for a 48th year in the little red schoolhouse on the Old Glenn Highway. But the 15 vacant seats remaining to be filled are a new issue in the center, which historically has reached maximum enrollment every year.

CCS executive director Mark Lackey wants the Eagle River and Chugiak community to know that the private nonprofit preschool (formerly known as Chugiak Children’s Services) survived the fiscal crisis and is back to its mission as usual, providing early childhood education for children ages 0-5. As the threat of closure loomed late into the summer, many families made other arrangements for their preschoolers.

“It was incredibly stressful for (staff) and our families,” Lackey said. “For all those families who had a 3-year-old or 4-year-old coming back, they had no idea what to do. Families heard it was closing and it just wasn’t an option anymore.”

Though the proposed $567,000 budget cut to CCS was restored Aug. 13, the uncertainty delayed the opening of the Chugiak center until Oct. 8 — too late for many families who depend on CCS for affordable preschool education and child care.

One former student, 15-year-old Kaden York, was dismayed to hear CCS was at risk of closure. He said his two years there as a 3- and 4-year-old made a profound impact on his life by helping his single working mom meet critical needs, teaching him life skills and instilling values like respect and kindness.

“Always having food, you know, breakfast and lunch; always having somewhere to go; always having someone to take care of you — that’s something. And it was nice for us kids who couldn’t always have all the nicest toys at home, to go there and get to play with all these toys and have so many fun things to do,” he said. “But it’s not just a place to go. Not only do you have the freedom to be a kid, but they teach you skills to use as an adult: how to be respectful, how to ask for help, how long to brush your teeth, what to do if there’s a moose — things that kids might not learn anywhere else.”

At zero cost to the families, CCS provides busing to and from Eagle River and Chugiak homes and a family-style breakfast and lunch each day Monday through Thursday, plus every other Friday this year to make up days missed with the late start. Classes prepare children for kindergarten by teaching social skills, literacy development, early science and math exploration and physical health. Parents are offered assistance with needs such as to improve housing or find better jobs, in addition to courses on subjects like parenting or shopping economically.

“We do a lot of working with the families as well, which we see as important or almost as important as our work with the children,” Lackey said. “The thing that sets us apart is just the partnership and commitment we have with the families and parents. We’re building relationships with these parents, with one really important thing in common, and that’s the success of their child. If we can build a really strong partnership with the parents, it’s going to be really good for the child.”

A minimum of 90 percent of the families must either meet income qualifications, have a diagnosed need for special education intervention, or be in foster care. Over-income applicants are put on a waiting list to fill any openings that remain after all qualifying students are enrolled, or later in the school year if a vacancy occurs.

“We don’t want to miss any of those qualifying kids, but we’re right on the cusp of of dipping into those waiting lists,” said Lackey.

Typically half the student body is returning students, he said, but this year only roughly 15-20 students are returning. Some of their parents were once students at CCS themselves, and about a third of the staff are parents of CCS alumni.

“We’re hearing back from multiple generations. It’s always nice to hear back from parents the difference that CCS made in their lives,” Lackey said. “It’s also a real vote of confidence that the parents who have experienced the program and know the most about it, want to come back and work here.”

One of York’s most vivid memories of preschool at CCS is the day he graduated. “I was walking up the stairs and the teachers were all lined up, congratulating me on going to kindergarten. … It’s kind of hard to describe — it felt like I was leaving a family.”

His mom is among the staff members whose children are CCS graduates, because she so appreciated how York and his brother were treated.

“I mostly remember that it was a blast to go there. No matter where I went or what I did, everyone was super nice, no matter what, teaching me that you should always treat people with kindness,” he said. “It was about making you feel wanted and helping you find yourself.

“And everyone from all walks of life experiences the same thing, and I think that’s important.”

Applications are available online at ccsalaska.org/enrollment or by calling the Chugiak CCS Center at (907) 373-7000. Lackey encourages all who are interested to apply as soon as possible regardless of income.

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