Providing day care and preschool programs amidst rural poverty.
Leadville, Colorado was in trouble when James McCabe assumed the superintendent's chair for its Lake County Schools (total enrollment of 1,100 students in a small rural valley of about 5,000) in 1987. The county's economic base collapsed when a local molybdenum mine shut down, throwing nearly 3,000 people out of work in a one-company town. Forced to drive 45 miles or more to Colorado's ski resorts to find work at half the wages, Leadville men and women began operating ski-lifts, selling tickets and ski equipment, and cleaning hotel rooms.
McCabe's solution was straightforward. Marry the need for day care with the equally pressing need for preschool preparation in this low-income community. Organizing a community team, he persuaded the school district to turn over an elementary school (renovated at a cost of nearly $250,000 funded mostly with Federal, state and county grants) which would be used for (1) an affordable preschool program for every 2 1/2 to 5-year old child in the county; (2) affordable day care for all children up to the age of ten (365 days a year from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.); and (3) before- and after-school care for all 5- to 13-year-olds in the county -- all without using any local property tax money.
The program at "the Center" snowballed. Originally intended for perhaps 100 students, nearly 700 students are now enrolled in its programs. The Center does not resemble a formal school in any sense. "Its curriculum concentrates on being a stimulating, nurturing place for children... on positive self-esteem, choices, and active learning, rather than on academics," according to a district 1992 evaluation.
Beyond the three original purposes, the Center also provides two meals and two snacks a day, preschool programs for students with disabilities (including nine students with severe and multiple handicaps), parenting programs and prenatal assistance, teenage pregnancy efforts, an "infants and toddlers" program (which now has a waiting list), child and family counseling, everything from music lessons to skiing instruction, and a wide variety of field trips, including a once-a-week ski trip for preschoolers.
These are impressive accomplishments for a facility with an annual budget of $600,000 that does not require local homeowners or renters to pay a single additional cent in property taxes. Lake County School District donated the building that houses the Center. McCabe used a $140,000 Community Development Block Grant, $40,000 provided by Lake County government, and $40,000 from the district to renovate the building, remove asbestos, and make the facility accessible to the disabled. Tuition and fees provide 50 percent of operational funding, and the difference is made up by the county's social services department, the state, Head Start, and business and philanthropy. "When they need to do something, they just go ahead and find the money and tell me later," McCabe says.
Equally impressive: the proportion of low-income families in the county appears to have declined from 51 percent to 28 percent. Part of the decline is explained by unemployed people moving from the county in search of work; but McCabe is convinced that it is partly because the Center frees parents to work while remaining in the county.
For additional information:
James R. McCabe
Superintendent of Schools
Lake County Schools District R-1
107 Spruce Street - P.O. Box 977
Leadville, CO 80461