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Near a new giraffe enclosure, not far from two Sumatran tigers’ new home and within eye shot of an emerging rain forest, a 15,000-square-foot building for Lincoln Public Schools’ science focus program is taking shape.

“This will be a new beginning for that program and that place,” LPS Operations Director Scott Wieskamp said Thursday during a tour of the new “zoo school” being built as part of a $16 million renovation at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

Known as the zoo school because it’s been at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo since its inception 22 years ago, the science focus program was the first of the district’s focus programs and remains one of its most popular.

The 100 or so students in the program now spend their days in two portables on the zoo grounds and in classrooms inside the Camelot Commons.

The $3.2 million building is still very much under construction, but Wieskamp said they hope to be done in time to move in before the end of the school year. If not, they'll be ready to welcome students in the fall.

LPS officials originally hoped the building would be done sooner, but Wieskamp said the arrival of new animals has driven the construction schedule.

“If giraffes show up we need to make sure the facility is ready,” he said.

Students will enter off the bike path on the west side of the building. It will have four classrooms and three 1,100-square-foot science labs.

That's bigger than those in the high schools and nearly as big as the 1,400 square-foot portables, Wieskamp said.

Some of the space in the building will be shared by the zoo — and the zoo is sharing the cost of those areas. They include a large multi-purpose room, a lobby area with a kitchenette or vending area and bathrooms.

The bathrooms in the shared area have a door to separate them into two areas during the day: one for use by students, the other for zoo patrons. Once school is over that door can be unlocked and the whole space used by zoo patrons.

The larger building will accommodate 50 to 75 more students, and there’s space for some four-legged folks. The zoo’s red pandas will share an inside enclosure with students, which will lead to a new space for them outside. A reception area for the zoo will also take up a portion of the building on the first floor.

Like other LPS schools, the new building will have a secured entrance and a geothermal heat pump system.

The new space will allow district officials to expand the curriculum, said Principal Kurt Glathar, though students already make use of the entire zoo, which serves as a living laboratory.

Child care challenges

Getting and keeping qualified child care providers is one of the biggest challenges for child care centers in the state, an analysis by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska found.

The annual turnover rate for providers in licensed child care centers in Nebraska is 26 percent; 15 percent for state-funded pre-kindergarten programs and 16 percent in kindergarten-third grade, the analysis found.

That doesn’t surprise Kelly Kiihne, who’s owned own Kelly’s Kids in the Highlands for a decade. Her center is licensed for 76 kids 6 weeks to 5 years old, and she’s got about 30 employees.

“Hiring has definitely been a challenge, especially in the last couple of years,” she said.

There’s a small pool of candidates who have early childhood education or experience, and investing the time to train new employees without experience can be frustrating because turnover is so high, she said.

The Buffett analysis found that 62 percent of child care administrators had trouble finding qualified replacements when employees left and that it took an average of two months.

It's not just early childhood education. Nationally, nearly a third of all new K-12 teachers leave the classroom after three years and nearly half after five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

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Lincoln Public Schools is an exception: Of new teachers hired, just 9 percent leave after three years.

Nationally, the early childhood education annual turnover rate is between 25 percent and 40 percent, according to a 2012 report by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

In Nebraska, low pay was the most common reason early childhood teachers leave their jobs, the Buffett analysis found. The median annual salary in 2015 was under $19,000.

The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, created two years ago by the Buffett Institute to look into the problems, will issue a report with recommendations and an action plan later this year.

It also is sponsoring showings of a documentary called "No Small Matter"  on early childhood education across the state. The Lincoln screening will be Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at Southeast Community College, 8880 O St.

School lunch program 

Families not working — or getting paid — because of the federal government shutdown can apply for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program if necessary.

A message from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the state Education Department confirmed that families can apply for benefits but should “manage the application process in a manner which reflects their unique circumstances” since the lunch benefits are based on annual income.

Schools, the memo said, should encourage families to terminate the benefits once the shutdown ends and they return to work or get paid for the work they’ve continued to do.

Edith Zumwalt, LPS director of nutrition services, has gotten one inquiry from a parent, who said it wasn’t necessary yet, but if it continued too much longer it might be.

New zoo school building

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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