Violet Rhodes

Pre-schooler Violet Rhodes, 4, enjoys some coloring time on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, during Community Foundation for the Alleghenies Early Childhood Education Fund which supports teachers and providers 50 local facilities for early learning. The event took place at Trinity Luthern Child Care and Learning Center in Somerset.

SOMERSET – Inside Trinity Lutheran’s Child Care and Learning Center, classrooms often get creative to encourage preschool children to embrace the core building blocks of literacy.

Sometimes that means tracing ABC’s in a plate of foamy shaving cream or dried rice, rather than pencil to paper to foster letter recognition, Trinity’s director, Jody Jurgevich said.

But for the early education providers behind the classwork in Cambria and Somerset counties, it isn’t all fun and games. Oftentimes they’re working on shoestring budgets to prepare children for kindergarten – inside outdated and under-equipped classrooms with under-trained teachers, Jurgevich and Learning Lamp CEO Leah Spangler said.

Community Foundation for the Alleghenies officials launched the first of a long-term investment aimed at changing that Tuesday, awarding $235,000 to eight agencies representing 50 early learning centers across Cambria and Somerset counties.

For Somerset-based Tableland Services, $9,000 in support will be used to train 36 teachers and support staff on an upgraded, technology-driven curriculum, while $60,000 will be used by The Learning Lamp to enhance and grow a grassroots Shared Services Alliance between 19 different school facilities across the region

“Part of our role as a community foundation is to identify long and short-term community needs and to create resources that help the community respond to those needs,” Community Foundation CEO Mike Kane said. “In this case, we’re building on a wealth of research that shows we can create a better future for our region by focusing on our youngest learners.”

Eight total recipients, several of whom will share their funds with area partners, received support Tuesday.

In addition to Tableland and The Learning Lamp, the rest include:

• The Rainbow Connection Learning Center of Sipesville: $11,000 to renovate playground equipment, implement management software and provide professional staff development training.

• Cambria County Child Development Corp: $15,000 for professional development and support resources to carry out a STEAM Leaning Park project at Morrell School.

• Small Town Hope of Northern Cambria: $26,000 to contract with a consultant to create a curriculum that would align with Northern Cambria school’s kindergarten readiness standards.

• Mom’s House, Inc., Johnstown: $34,000 to add staff, which would enable the facility to boost enrollment.

• Alternative Community Resource Program, Inc.: $55,000 to assess behavior modification issues with preschool and Pre-K Counts students and provide training and/or behavioral health professional support staff support to the programs and children they support.

• Early Learning Resource Center Region 6: $25,000 to provide tuition assistance to families in Cambria and Somerset counties who don’t qualify for federally funded child care assistance.

Kane and Community Foundation Program Officer Angie Berzonski said the Early Education Fund initiative was developed to fill a critical funding void local schools like these face – now and in the future.

And there’s a key focus on reading, they said.

Studies have shown that children who are proficient readers by the end of third grade, are far more likely to graduate, go to college and lead productive lives in their communities.

It’s a similar story with students who attend high-quality early education centers, decades of research has shown.

“This is an immediate investment in these kids,” Kane said, standing inside a busy Trinity Lutheran classroom Tuesday. “But it’s a long-term investment in our community.”

Tuesday’s grant awards will benefit early learning centers in every corner of the Cambria-Somerset area, including 18 Learning Lamp schools.

But through the further development of a regional Shared Services Alliances partnership,early education centers of every kind can have local access to outside resources – recruitment support, a specialized consultant who can help centers find support for children with behavioral challenges and professional development training, Spangler said.

Berzonski said support could enable staff to obtain continuing education credits or an associates degree, over time.

Jurgevich praised the idea.

“Oftentimes we’re trying to prepare these children to thrive under difficult circumstances,” she said. “We’re hiring teachers who have no background in education.”

And in today’s low-unemployment economy, filling vacancies is a major challenge, Jurgevich added.

As a region of partners, these are issues that can be overcome together, while raising facility standards to the Department of Education’s highest levels, Spangler said.

Pennsylvania’s rigorous quality standards of the “Keystone Stars” program, which designates state-licensed facilities at four separate performance levels.

Today, only a small number of local early education centers have achieved a level 3 or 4 status.

In Somerset County, none have exceeded the two star-level.

Spangler and Berzonski said the Shared Services Alliances will work to change that.

“There’s been a hesitancy to climb (levels) because every level has different standards and reimbursement rates. It can be confusing on the business side,” Spangler said.

But with the right support, the return on their efforts can be a win for students, schools and, in time, their communities, she added.

“This is just the beginning” Berzonski said. “We want to take all of our programs to the next level.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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