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posted: 1/7/2015 5:30 AM

New Dist. 200 committee starts by discussing early childhood

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Jefferson Early Childhood Center was the hot topic during Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's first community engagement committee meeting Tuesday.

District officials said, however, that the new board of education subcommittee wasn't formed solely to discuss the center -- or a possible future referendum to build a new center.

"One of the reasons the committee was created was as a follow-up to the Engage200 process, and very clearly, early childhood education was a big theme in that Engage200 process," Superintendent Jeffrey Schuler said. "What we're trying to do is address some of the feedback we received out of that."

Schuler said the Engage200 feedback showed a lack of understanding from the public about how Jefferson is a significant part of the district's overall educational plan.

"I think we clearly need to do a better job of communicating the full scope of our service," he said.

Joanne Panopoulos, assistant superintendent for student services, said some Engage200 attendees said they didn't even know what Jefferson was or who it served. Some believed it is a day care facility, while others thought it only served kids with special needs.

The 1950s-era center, at 130 N. Hazelton Ave. in Wheaton, houses programs for students ages 3 to 5. About two-thirds of the students have special needs, for whom the district is required by law to provide early education. The remaining students do not have special needs and pay tuition.

In fall 2013, voters rejected a proposed tax increase to finance the construction of a new early childhood center, which was proposed because officials say Jefferson is lacking appropriate instruction space.

On Tuesday, the new committee brainstormed ideas on how the district can engage community members so they learn more about the impact of and need for early childhood education.

Six people took part in the discussion, including Schuler, Panopoulos, board of education members Jim Vroman and Joann Coghill, Jefferson Elementary School Principal Stephanie Farrelly and director of public relations Erica Loiacono.

One suggestion was to host a "play and learn" event this spring with the Wheaton Warrenville Early Childhood Collaborative, of which Jefferson is a part.

The idea is to invite parents and kids to a Saturday afternoon event where they can participate in fun activities but also learn about Jefferson and the district's early childhood education initiatives.

Coghill said as a new grandparent, she would be drawn in to such a meeting so she could learn more about what she can do to help her grandchild in the early years of education.

Vroman said, however, he thinks the district needs to take a broader approach so people who no longer have young children -- or don't have any kids at all in the district -- understand how early childhood education impacts them.

Another idea was to discuss early childhood education in a state of the district address at the beginning of next school year.

Schuler said he hopes to "get the community ready to look at options for how you address needs within Jefferson" this fall. He would also like to fill gaps in understanding about early childhood education before then.

"You don't want to have to, at that point, come back and address the question of 'Why do we even need (Jefferson) to begin with?' it's purpose and its overall scope," he said.

When asked if the community engagement committee will discuss other topics in the future, Schuler said "absolutely."

"Conversation of this committee will absolutely extend beyond Jefferson and really take a more wholistic look at really how are we engaging the community," he said. "Year over year, though, I feel like that's going to change, the need around which we are engaging the community isn't going to stay the same."

"We've identified community engagement as one of five critical components in the work that we do," he added. "I think it's essential for the board to make sure that they've got a committee that's really monitoring the work that we're doing specifically in each of those five areas."

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