How a Small Town in a Red State Rallied Around Universal Preschool

AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — After reading a book about the five senses to a semicircle of rapt 4-year-olds, Abi Hawker tells the children in her afternoon preschool class that she has a surprise for them.

She drags a small popcorn maker onto the carpet and asks them to consider: Which of their senses might be activated when she pours the kernels into the machine? When the kernels heat up? When the popcorn begins to pop?

Moments later, the children shriek with joy as the corn kernels burst.

While Hawker explains what the kids are seeing, she asks them questions that connect back to the day’s lesson. From the activity, the class transitions to snack time, stimulating two more senses: touch and taste.

A few years ago, this experience would’ve been inaccessible to nearly half of the children in Hawker’s classroom. Their families don’t make enough money to afford early childhood education. Other kids come from families who may have the means but, until recently, didn’t make early learning a priority.

Today, though, American Falls is a town transformed.

This one-stoplight farming community on the banks of the Snake River has seen marked improvements in family engagement, preschool access and kindergarten readiness in just the last few years — the results of a grassroots effort to support children and families in this enclave of southeastern Idaho.

Hillcrest Developmental Preschool sensory activity with popcorn
Hillcrest teacher Abi Hawker, left, leads preschoolers in a sensory-based learning activity involving popcorn on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Photo by Kyle Green for The Associated Press.

It could not have come at a more critical time. As President Joe Biden’s efforts to expand child care support have faltered, states have been the next-best hope for addressing a nationwide crisis in early childhood education. Some, such as New Mexico, Minnesota and Vermont, have invested heavily. But others have made clear they view early care and education as an individual, not government, responsibility.

In reliably conservative Idaho, lawmakers have gone a step further. They’ve withheld statewide support for early learners — Idaho is one of the few states that does not provide funding for preschool — and rejected federal grants to improve early childhood education. Some have expressed open hostility toward early learning, including one Republican lawmaker who said he opposed any bill that makes it easier “for mothers to come out of the home.”

American Falls swings conservative, too. Yet the town has proudly embraced a goal that backers describe as “progressive”: universal preschool. Residents have rallied around a simple mantra — “read, talk, play” — and turned it into a movement.

Hawker leads children in a breathing exercise, the kind of lesson designed to help them manage emotions. Photo by Kyle Green for The Associated Press.

That homegrown success has been fueled by a broader experiment spreading across the state, where communities build their own systems for early childhood education. These ad hoc projects are known as “collaboratives,” and they bring together educators, school district leaders, and nonprofit and business executives to identify and dismantle barriers to early childhood development. It’s known here as early learning done “the Idaho way.”

“The bottom-up approach is critical to its success,” says Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit that champions the collaborative model.

American Falls at sunset
A town of 4,500, American Falls has seen marked improvements in family engagement, preschool access and kindergarten readiness in just the last few years — the results of a grassroots effort to support children and families. Photo by Kyle Green for The Associated Press.

These local partnerships offer hope to families in the 25 Idaho communities and counting that have launched them. The goal: for the success of these self-determined efforts to prove to state lawmakers that early learning programs are good for all Idahoans and worthy of state money.

“We’re building something that they can see, feel, touch, experience in their backyards. We’re showing them it can work in their community,” Oppenheimer says. “So if you invest in early childhood, you are going to see better fall kindergarten [readiness] rates. You’re going to see families who know where to go for resources. You’re going to see children thriving.”

That’s what is on display in American Falls, the darling of Idaho’s early learning enterprise.

It started with Randy Jensen, who became superintendent of the American Falls school district in 2017. At the time, he says, kindergarten readiness rates “were like, whew, rock bottom.” To turn things around, he encouraged families to read to their children, talk with their children and play with their children every single day.

Superintendent Randy Jensen
“In the world today, everyone’s so divided. ‘Read, talk, play’ is something the whole community could support,” says Randy Jensen, the superintendent of American Falls School District since 2017. “Who can argue with it?” Photo by Kyle Green for The Associated Press.

Six years later, after a community-wide campaign, the concept is ubiquitous in the 4,500-person town, where half of residents identify as Hispanic. At the bank, in the grocery store, at the mayor’s office, people in town wear their “read, talk, play” shirts with pride. The message, sometimes translated to the Spanish “leer, hablar, jugar,” can be found also on decals in shop windows, pinned to office bulletin boards and on banners hung from light poles.

“It’s just part of the culture here now,” says Tennille Call, the interim director of education at United Way of Southeastern Idaho. The nonprofit supports early learning in American Falls financially and by hosting regular events where parents and children participate together in learning activities.

A preschool push started in 2019.

A small number of families in town could afford to pay out of pocket. Others qualified for free Head Start or child care subsidies.

But the majority fell into an overlooked middle category.

“They don’t have money for preschool,” Jensen says, noting his rural district has one of the highest poverty rates in the state. “They’re living paycheck to paycheck.”

The United Way stepped forward with scholarships that today support nearly 40 percent of the children who attend preschool in American Falls, which now has five programs — a mix of private and public.

“But then, we didn’t just want kids in preschool,” Jensen adds. “We wanted them in a high-quality preschool.”

As the 3-year-olds in Honi Allen’s class grab their seats and get started on the art activity, she notices a few grip their crayons like one might stir a cauldron, fists closed tightly. She reminds them to “pinch, pinch, pinch” the utensil. They adjust their grips.

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