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Placing the focus on family learning

Kelley Cox Post Independent
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PARACHUTE, Colorado – Sonja Selby didn’t think there was any way she would be able to finish high school when she found out she was pregnant three years ago.

Now 20, Selby is preparing to graduate from Grand Valley High School this spring, just a year behind schedule.

It’s all thanks to the Garfield School District 16 Teen Parent Program, one of the many family-centered early childhood programs at the Grand Valley Center for Family Learning in Parachute.



“I was pretty nervous about trying to finish school and raise a baby at the same time. And, it was rough at times,” Selby said. “But this has been the most wonderful thing that could have happened to me.

“I always told myself I would never be a teen mom, but it happened,” she adds. “I might not be as strong a person as I am now, because of the support I’ve gotten here.”



Angela Cornejo was just 12 when she, too, learned she was pregnant. As one might imagine, it was a huge shock at that young age.

“I thought my dreams were over,” said Cornejo, now 16.

Like Selby, though, she has been able to continue her schooling through the Teen Parent Program, and is on track to graduate high school with her own class next year.

Cornejo’s daughter Nayeli and Selby’s daughter Jaylyn, both age 3, are getting a huge jump on their early learning and development as well.

While their moms are in class, and dads Abraham Mireles and Joshua Selby are at work, the toddlers are in school, too.

Dorrie Hales has been the infant and toddler teacher at the Center for Family Learning since 2009. She provides day care service while the childrens’ moms are in school.

But it’s more than just day care. It’s learning in its earliest stages, which is a primary focus at the center.

“I love watching the kids grow, and every day it’s a new adventure,” Hales said. “We also work with the parents on applied parenting skills, and how to interact with their children. It’s nice watching the moms grow up to be young adults.”

The Temple Hoyne Buell foundation provides funding support for the child care center.

The Teen Parent program is small, with just four young mothers currently in the program. It’s had as many as eight at any one time, said Rebecca Ruland, principal at the Center for Family Learning.

That’s part of the center’s uniqueness, she said.

Because of Parachute’s remote location on the far west end of Garfield County, it’s many miles removed from the various nonprofit organizations that typically provide early childhood education, parenting and literacy classes, counseling and health care support.

Situated in the original downtown Parachute school building that was built in the 1930s, the school serves about 100 preschool students affiliated with the Colorado Preschool and federal Head Start preschool programs.

The center is also home to all of District 16’s kindergarten classes. Rather than being part of the local elementary schools, the district felt it was important to keep kindergarten grouped with the other early childhood learning programs at the Center for Family Learning.

Three kindergarten teachers and three assistants cover two full-day classes and two half-day classes.

Students at the school have their own science room, a rare treat in the early childhood education realm.

A grant from EnCana helps offset the cost of full-day kindergarten. The program is still tuition-based for those who can afford to pay.

The school district did attempt to secure funding to support full-day kindergarten as part of its mill levy override proposal that was put to district voters last fall.

The ballot question, which also sought funding for district general fund and capital needs, did not pass. But the fact that full-day kindergarten was an identified need is an indication of the district’s commitment to the importance of early childhood learning, Ruland said.

“Full day versus a half day of kindergarten makes a huge difference in student outcomes,” she said. “The children have a lot more time to explore and reflect, and that’s a big part of our focus here.

“We are a family model, and the only one like this in Garfield County,” she said.

Among the family center’s goals are to:

• Increase the percentage of preschool-aged children with identified social/emotional, physical, cognitive and language development needs who are ready for kindergarten.

• Increase the percentage of kindergarten students scoring proficient or higher in reading, writing and math.

• Provide better access to health, early childhood education, parent support, family literacy and adult education services.

• Increase the percentage of parents who improve their education.

“This building is very unique, because it’s designed with both children and parents in mind,” Ruland said.

Early childhood education focuses on the needs of children from birth to about 6.

“Developmentally, so many things are happening during that period, and it’s important to foster that,” Ruland said.

Parent involvement at that age is also crucial, and is a major focus at the center.

“It’s not just an after-thought, it’s the centerpiece,” Ruland said. “The investment you make in a child at an early age produces a lifetime of positive results.”

The global Save the Children organization even has a presence at the center. One of its domestic programs involves working to increase literacy success. An on-site coordinator provides support and training for young mothers to help achieve that goal.

“You don’t learn vocabulary from TV and video games, it comes from human interaction,” Ruland said.

The Center for Family Learning building itself is designed with the whole family in mind. The historic school building was fully renovated five years ago with funding from a bond issue and mill levy approved by District 16 voters at the time.

The former gym and library areas have been converted into a wide open central gathering space.

It’s filled with books, with comfy places for parents or older siblings to sit with the younger children and read. They can also dig into the “learning tubs” which contain all sorts of educational materials to facilitate family interaction.

The renovation project sought to maintain the building’s historical features, while also making it brighter and more inviting with natural light features and open areas throughout.

The center also hosts a variety of classes for parents on topics such as parenting skills, adult literacy and financial planning.

Building confidence in parents is a big part of developing confident children who are ready to learn, Ruland said.

Take the teen moms, for instance.

Without a program to help them both finish school and learn parenting skills, their children could quickly fall into the high risk group as they enter school.

“There are a lot of questions about how that child is going to come out,” Ruland said. “With the teen mom program, there’s a much better chance that those kids are going to succeed in school themselves.

“It’s a big investment, but it’s worth it” she said.

This is Ruland’s fifth year at the Grand Valley Center for Family Learning, and each year the staff has added something new to the mix.

Last year, the school also opened a site-based Student and Family Health Center, in partnership with the Grand River Hospital District, and with grant funding from the Colorado Health Foundation.

Sarah Hunter is the clinic coordinator at the new health center.

“Our vision is similar to the school district’s when it comes to children and families,” Hunter said. “Our purpose is to help families out with their health care needs, and offer that as a community service.”

The hospital district is also working to open a family health center in neighboring Garfield School District Re-2 in Rifle next school year, she said.

The Parachute center is staffed three days a week, and includes a nurse practitioner, a medical assistant and a mental health counselor.

“Mental health in particular is the piece that’s hard to find access to on this end of the county, because we’re so far removed from other services,” Ruland said. “It’s a huge resource, and has been very well utilized.”

Health services are also made available to school district staff, she said.

Outdoors at the family center, there’s a playground with artificial turf beneath the play structures.

Last fall, construction was also completed on an interactive nature park, called a “Sensory Play Area,” in what was a vacant lot behind the school building.

The $200,000 project received grant funding from Great Outdoors Colorado and the Boettcher Foundation.

The area will be full of activity once the weather warms up. It includes a small bike path running between nature-themed play structures, plus gardens and even a small vineyard for children to learn about gardening.

Science teachers will work with students to plant the gardens in the spring. During the summer, parents and children will be invited to continue to use and maintain the garden areas.

The center operates on an annual budget of about $685,000, a majority of which is covered by the school district. Numerous grants, federal and state funding also support the center.

“It is so important to be able to look at the whole child, and support them socially and emotionally,” Ruland added. “And it’s great that this district values this approach as a foundation of learning.”

jstroud@postindependent.com


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