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Nearly 250 business, civic and education leaders from more than 70 Nebraska communities will gather in Kearney on Monday to talk about early childhood education.

And part of that discussion will include this fact: Red Cloud — the small town 65 miles south of Grand Island where Willa Cather was born — has a grocery store.

Kate Gallagher, director of research and evaluation at the University of Nebraska’s Buffett Early Childhood Institute, says that grocery store makes a crucial point for all those attendees looking for ways to start, improve or expand early childhood programs in their communities.

Because, without a new, high-quality child care center in the small Nebraska town, there would be no grocery store.

“They, like many small rural towns, did not have a thriving downtown business or a local grocery store,” Gallagher said. “This year, a family looking to go into business (somewhere in Nebraska) found Red Cloud and settled there and opened a grocery store in the downtown district completely based on the fact that they have three young kids.”

And they wanted quality child care for those three young kids.

Gallagher, who helped start Red Cloud’s child care center and sits on its board, said the town’s leaders decided to focus their economic development plans on branding and marketing their little town as a destination spot — and on creating a high-quality early child care education program.

“It is an amazing effort,” Gallagher said, and it will be one of the stories shared at Monday’s conference designed to help communities offer high-quality child care.

The Buffett Institute has done a number of studies to highlight the need for early childhood education in a state where 75 percent of children from birth to 5 years have parents in the workforce — 10 percent higher than the national average.

Monday’s conference — “Thriving Children, Families and Communities: The role of Early Childhood Programs” — is sponsored by seven statewide organizations in response to communities' requests for help.

One of the main focuses of the conference will be the role early childhood education plays in economic development, said Gallagher, who will give the keynote speech.

"The future of communities is so tied up in their ability to provide quality child care education,” she said.

The conference will include stories from Red Cloud and other communities, and workshops will target a variety of issues communities face — and offer advice on how to overcome them. 

The interest from communities across the state shows the need — and desire — for early childhood education, Gallagher said.

“That’s what’s so striking,” she said. “This sends a message. This is a signal to understand, support and take the next step.”

Disappointed parents

Not everybody’s happy with new procedures at Seacrest Field that prohibit parents from greeting their football players on the field after a game.

Tim Gergen, the parent of a Southeast football player, told the Lincoln Board of Education he’s among many parents taken aback by the new rules that no longer allow parents to congratulate — or console — their kids on the field after a game.

The new procedures require soccer and football players to leave the field immediately after the post-game meeting and not linger to talk to fans from the sidelines. The rules are part of a larger review of safety procedures for sporting events.

LPS officials say the change will help expedite the exit of teams involved in one game to make way for those playing a second game and will better ensure the safety of spectators and players.

But Gergen said the new rules deny parents the chance to take a minute to touch base with their kids after a game — something that’s happened for years.

“Unfortunately, my son is now a senior and it’s his time to play at Seacrest Field and I’ve been waiting these three or four years watching other families congratulate their kids at Seacrest Field and now I am seeing that being taken away from me at this point,” he told the board.

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Other school districts haven’t made such a change, he said, but LPS is enforcing the policy at away games, too.

He asked the board to consider revising the policy, but LPS Athletic Director Kathi Wieskamp said Friday there are no plans to do so.

Beefing up math skills

A new program being piloted at Lincoln Southeast and Lincoln High is designed to help students improve their math skills so they won’t have to take remedial courses when they enroll at Southeast Community College.

The course is part of an effort by all the state’s community colleges to target Nebraska high school students who got low math scores on the ACT and are likely to have to pay for a remedial course in college.

Students who score 13 to 18 on the math portion of the college preparatory exam now given to all LPS juniors are eligible to take the online course as seniors.

A perfect ACT score is 36. ACT college benchmarks in math are 18-21.

Placement tests typically determine whether students must take noncredit remedial courses when they start community college, said Josh Males, Lincoln Public Schools math curriculum specialist.

Tuesday, the Lincoln Board of Education approved a three-year, $83,460 grant from SCC to start the program at LPS. The grant includes $76,584 in matching funds from the district. District officials hope to expand it to all six high schools.

Students who complete it as seniors — at no cost — don’t have to take the remedial course and can jump right in to the courses necessary for their degrees.

The class is designed for students planning to enroll at SCC, Males said, and students planning to attend a four-year college might be better served by taking advanced algebra or pre-calculus.

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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