Gastineau Elementary teacher Ben Kriegmont speaks to a crowd at Tuesday’s Slam Dunk event that invited community members to discuss ways to improve Juneau’s early education programs. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Gastineau Elementary teacher Ben Kriegmont speaks to a crowd at Tuesday’s Slam Dunk event that invited community members to discuss ways to improve Juneau’s early education programs. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Town hall meeting involves community in early childcare initiative

When Gastineau Elementary kindergarten teacher Ben Kriegmont sees students on the first day of school, he can usually divide them into two groups.

“One group that’s really eager and excited to learn and ready to go,” Kriegmont said, “and another group that’s either very hesitant to come to school, unsure of what they’re getting into, or just not really ready to participate.”

Kriegmont broke down the two groups as he spoke to a crowd searching for solutions to have more students in that first group instead of the second. Kriegmont’s audience included more than 50 people attracted to Centennial Hall on Tuesday night for a town hall meeting on pre-kindergarten. The meeting was hosted by an organization called Best Starts that aims to improve Juneau’s pre-kindergarten services.

Tuesday’s event brought childcare professionals, parents and other members of the community together to brainstorm ways to approach early childhood education in Juneau. Mayor Ken Koelsch gave a quick introduction and was followed by videos and a slideshow presentation about statistics and studies relating to early childhood care.

Through the use of an smartphone-based polling system, as well as small-group conversations, organizers were able to get an idea of how community members felt about the strengths and weaknesses of early childhood care in Juneau and possible solutions to reducing stress in children and getting them more prepared for kindergarten.

One of the attendees was Colleen Brody, the assistant director at Gold Creek Child Development Center. She earned a degree relating to early childhood education and has worked at Gold Creek for four years, so she’s long been interested in issues of childhood development.

At Tuesday’s event, she carried with her one more reason to be invested in the future of Juneau’s early childhood education — her seven-month-old daughter Hudson.

Brody ducked out a little early to get Hudson home, she but said she thought the format of the meeting encouraged some excellent discussion. With a variety of people at the meeting, from educators to housing developers to parents, she heard a number of encouraging ideas and observations.

As she was about to leave, Brody saw Jim Calvin from the McDowell Group presenting on the long-term economic benefits of investing in early childhood education. Calvin’s presentation explained that funding early education fits into the Juneau Economic Plan and that better pre-K programs can attract more “location-neutral professionals” who are looking for the best opportunities for their children.

Brody believes getting the word out on the economic benefits can encourage a wider audience to get involved in the discussion.

“I like that they’re approaching it from an economic point of view, because I feel like a lot of people, when they view funding for early childhood, they’re like, ‘Oh no, the parents should take care of that,’” Brody said, “and by approaching it from an economic viewpoint, I think it will get people who are about the numbers and more invested in it. It’s not just for the parents, it’s for the whole community.”

[How investing in early education is good for Alaska’s economy]

Best Starts has asked the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly to request increased funding for early education. Earlier this year, it requested some money from the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase extension to go to early education. Though Best Starts didn’t make the list of programs that will receive sales tax revenue, most Assembly members have expressed support for the initiative.

Best Starts contacted the seven Assembly candidates in the Oct. 3 election, asking them where early childhood education ranks on their list of priorities. Of the seven, five of them listed Best Starts as a “high” priority while District 2 incumbent Debbie White listed it as a “medium” priority and District 1 challenger Loretto Jones listed it as a “low” priority.

Areawide Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski (who is running for re-election this fall) was in attendance Tuesday night, as was District 2 challenger Rob Edwardson. Board of Education candidate Jeff Short, who has spoken in favor of early childhood education, was also there. In her response to the survey, Gladziszewski said the Assembly “should explore all the possibilities immediately.”

The Board of Education has also gone on the record as being in favor of investing in early education, and President Brian Holst (who is also running for re-election this fall) was moderating Tuesday’s event. The fact that people at the city level are interested in exploring ways to fund Best Starts and early childhood education, Brody said, is encouraging.

“It’s very exciting,” Brody said. “It’s a big step in the right direction for Juneau.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or

Mayor Ken Koelsch speaks to a crowd at Tuesday’s Slam Dunk event that invited community members to discuss ways to improve Juneau’s early education programs. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Mayor Ken Koelsch speaks to a crowd at Tuesday’s Slam Dunk event that invited community members to discuss ways to improve Juneau’s early education programs. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

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