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Early childhood education faces growing demand

Six-month-old Xander played with blocks on the carpeted floor of the Family Resource Center on Wednesday morning. All around the baby, children and their mothers played with arts and crafts projects, toy trains and books as Xander divvied his tim...

Six-month-old Xander played with blocks on the carpeted floor of the Family Resource Center on Wednesday morning.

All around the baby, children and their mothers played with arts and crafts projects, toy trains and books as Xander divvied his time between his blocks and watching the other kids.

Xander's mom, Emily Gilbertson, just smiled over him. Gilbertson and Xander have been coming to playgroup at the Family Resource Center every Wednesday for the past few months.

Gilbertson, of Duluth, learned about the center through an online Twin Ports mom's group.

The center, now in its fifth year, has had its clientele grow greatly from a combination of extra classes, expanding services in rural Douglas County and word of mouth. It's having a tough time serving everyone.

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The Superior school board voted in March to expand the Family Resource Center's offerings to include early childhood family education-style classes when it eliminated the district's Early Childhood Family Education program. The resource center is offering one or two less early childhood family education-style classes then that program did last year.

The resource center surveyed parents during the summer and added about five additional classes this fall including a new toddler class at Four Corners Elementary School and a monthly playgroup in Solon Springs.

The additional classes and playgroups aren't enough to keep up with demand. Both new toddler classes have a waiting list of parents interested in joining the classes.

Parents at the group in Poplar wanted to see their playgroup expand this year, but the resource center is only able to staff the group twice a month. To make up the difference, volunteer parents are setting up independent meetings during the off weeks.

Lots of parents are looking for classes and other opportunities for their toddlers. The community has several resources for preschool education but not many for toddlers, and that's what parents are turning to the resource center to find, said Nicky Wilson, the district's family resources coordinator.

The toddler classes both run for one semester and a second round of classes will start in January. The center is considering adding a second toddler class depending on staffing capabilities.

"It's very busy," said Donna Matlock, resource center manager. "I've been wearing many different hats for this place."

Besides running playgroups and classes, family resource center staff members also provide home visits to residents of Douglas County.

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The Family Resource Center is funded by the Superior school district and the Children's Trust Fund, an organization that works to ensure Wisconsin children grow up without experiencing abuse or neglect.

Growing the center in both number of classes and satellites in the greater county has been difficult. The school district added $30,000 to the center's budget when it took over the Early Childhood Family Education programming courses, but the money barely covers funding cuts from the Children's Trust Fund, Wilson said.

Parents are taking action to help raise money for the center. A parent advisory board that usually had only one or two members has grown to a group of seven to 15 individuals who are helping plan fundraisers later this fall, said Tarah Nichols, a mother who's active in the group.

The advisory group isn't the only aspect of the center seeing increased participation this year. Wednesday morning's playgroup at the Family Resource Center was filled with mothers and small children, but the room would have looked bleak last year, when only one or two families attended, Chicka said.

It's grown tremendously this year, she said.

Many of the people visiting the playgroup Wednesday morning were new to the Family Resource Center, and many were from Duluth.

Parents from Duluth are looking to Douglas County's Family Resource Center for playgroups and classes because Duluth has closed its resource centers because of a lack of funding, Wilson said.

The Family Resource Center's funding from the Children's Trust Fund is for serving families in Douglas County, but the center doesn't turn any families away, she said.

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Shelley VanArsdale of Proctor came to the Family Resource Center for the first time Wednesday.

She learned about the center from friends and wanted to see what it's all about. It's hard finding things to do with young children, she said. "I wish they had something like this in Duluth."

Nichols, of Superior, has been coming to the center since it opened five years ago. A lot more programs are offered this year, she said. "It's a great place to come even just to try."

The Family Resource Center's advisory board is holding its first fundraiser, Rock the Cradle, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 17, at Northern Lights Elementary School. The event is a dance for families with young children. Tickets are available at the Family Resource Center.

Anna Kurth covers education. Call her at (715) 395-5019 or e-mail akurth@superiortelegram.com .

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