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Parents concerned about the future of Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park preschool

When Stacey Peterson enrolled her oldest son in a traditional preschool program two years ago, it was not easy.

She said her shy but active son never wanted to go, would cry almost every day and often ended up playing by himself at school.

“It was a challenge for us that first year,” the Redmond resident said.

For the 2013-14 school year, Peterson enrolled her son in the preschool program at Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park after hearing about it from a friend. The class was very active; the kids were outside every day and the transformation Peterson saw in her son was “amazing.”

“He found his niche,” she said.

The farm served as an outdoor classroom for the program as the students learned about the environment and environmental stewardship, Peterson said, adding that it was a great introduction to school for kids who were not ready to sit for long periods of time in a traditional classroom.

“It’s just such a unique environment for these kids,” she said.

With the success she saw in her older son — who will be entering kindergarten this fall — Peterson has enrolled her younger son in the preschool program for this fall so he could have the same experience.

But the recent news of changes to the outdoor preschool has Peterson and other parents concerned about the program’s future.

A PARTNERSHIP OR OUTSOURCING?

At the end of this school year, the preschool’s teacher left and the program supervisor retired. The resulting hole in staffing has led the City of Redmond Parks and Recreation Department to seek a partnering organization to provide the preschool programming at Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park for the 2014-15 school year.

The city issued a formal request for proposals on June 9 for the preschool program — which has been offered for more than 20 years — to serve children ages 3-5. The contracted partner organization will provide a comprehensive preschool program with a focus on preparing children for kindergarten, learning through play and developing social skills.

“We are strongly committed to serving families and preschoolers at Farrel-McWhirter,” said Craig Larsen, parks and recreation director. “We know parents value the current program and are looking for a partner who will continue the traditions of the farm and forest setting for the preschool program.”

Carlie Fitzpatrick, another concerned parent who has had one child go through the program and two more coming up in the next few years, said with the two positions open for the program and with how long the program has been around, there should be enough curriculum for new staff to work with to keep the program going as is.

Larsen said they don’t think this is an option.

“We lost both our teacher and our lead city staff person,” he said. “Recruiting and hiring both and then training them on the program would be very difficult. We thought about it carefully and chose the partnership route because we believe it gives us the best opportunity to have a successful school in September.”

Peterson said her concern with this model of bringing in a partner — or outsourcing — is that the city will lose control of the programming. She said the contractor will essentially just be leasing the farm space from the city without keeping the programming aligned with Redmond’s values such as maintaining a clean and green environment.

Peterson added that if this is the direction the city is going, she will pull her younger son out of the preschool program.

Larsen said while their goal is to offer a preschool experience that takes advantage of the environmental and farm opportunities of the site, he can’t speculate on the exact nature of what the future program will look like.

“The potential partners we have heard from so far are experienced in this aspect and are excited about the opportunity,” he said.

A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME

Parents were notified of the city’s request for proposals for the preschool program by letter on June 11. The deadline for accepting proposals is June 30.

This short timeline also has parents concerned.

Megan Anderson, whose son just completed the program and daughter is set to start in the fall, said parents are worried that the rush to submit proposals will compromise the quality of the program.

“We just want to make sure that there’s a quality preschool there,” she said.

Anderson said if the city wants to make changes to the program, then she suggests they slow down the process.

Larsen said this is not something they are concerned about because the successful bidder will have “pretty deep experience in the programs” they are seeking.

“It is unlikely to be a program designed from the ground up,” he said. “Our goal is a stronger more complete program as a result of this partnership.”

PROGRAM INFORMATION

Currently, the preschool at Farrel-McWhirter serves about 50 families, September through June in three programs: Creative Play, Preschool Adventures and Pre-K Discoveries. Class sizes vary between 16 and 20, and the price ranges from $210-$312 per month.

The program partner selected would provide management of daily preschool operations, including supervision of the preschool teachers, curriculum development and communicating with parents, with oversight from the city.

“We want to continue providing quality preschool at Farrel-McWhirter and we believe that partnering is a good option at this time,” Larsen said. “We’ll evaluate the contract program as we go forward to be sure that it exceeds the expectations of the preschoolers and their families.”

He added that the city held an onsite walk-through last week for interested parties to see the farm and park, ask questions and get more information. From this walk-through, Larsen said they met some really excited people.

“We’re really hopeful,” he said about potential proposal submissions.

A selection panel including staff and preschool parents will review the submitted proposals. Larsen added that they have sent the request for proposals to Lake Washington School District and sought advice from district officials, as well. The city plans to complete contract negotiations and have a new program in place this fall.

The city will hold a parent information tonight at 6 p.m. at Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park (19545 N.E. Redmond Rd). Larsen said they want to keep everyone affected informed at all stages of this process.

For more information, contact Mark Hickok, recreation division manager, at (425) 556-2356 or mhhickok@redmond.gov.

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