North Routt Preschool Director Kerri Ann Crocker leads a group of children on a hike around Pearl Lake. Under Crocker's leadership, the small preschool has rebounded from its sudden closure nearly two years ago.

Photo by Scott Franz

North Routt Preschool Director Kerri Ann Crocker leads a group of children on a hike around Pearl Lake. Under Crocker's leadership, the small preschool has rebounded from its sudden closure nearly two years ago.

The Priceless Years: North Routt preschool comes back from the brink

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It’s a Monday, Kerri Ann Crocker explained, as 8-year-old Zakk Leftwitch refused a second order from a park ranger to release the unlucky grasshopper the boy captured on the shore of Pearl Lake in North Routt County.

It’s a Monday, Crocker said again, when moments later, another energetic young student found it more fun to play with a stick three times his size than listen to the ranger’s lesson on using all of the senses to experience nature.

Overseeing the eight adventurous, rambunctious kids who attend North Routt Preschool’s summer adventure program is a challenge.

There are boo-boos from seemingly inevitable slips on gravel trails.

One boy keeps returning home without the pair of socks he takes off before hunting for crawdads in the water.

And some children find it way more appealing to run far off the trail than stay inside the comfort of the “teacher sandwich” created by Crocker, the executive director of the preschool, and assistant teacher Christa Kline.

“These kids are so full of energy,” Crocker said at the end of a short, leisurely hike around the pristine mountain lake.

Despite all of the challenges, the mother of two always seems unfazed by the constant stream of mishaps and crying.

Screams are met by her with smiles.

Inattention is met by a lullaby that calms the children.

Boo-boos get Band-Aids.

As she sits and eats lunch with the kids on a stump near the water, Crocker recalls how she came to lead the preschool less than two years ago, and how important it is for the school to continue.

It was 2011, and the school closed suddenly after a previous director and board accrued too high a debt to keep the doors open.

The shuttering of the school instantly affected parents in the rural town 30 minutes north of Steamboat Springs, and many found it hard to find alternative care on short notice.

But with the help of a $25,000 grant from Routt County, an outpouring of community support and Crocker’s unexpected career move from a manager at a nearby business to preschool director, the small campus has endured.

Fundraisers and matching grants have helped whittle down an operating debt of more than $19,000 in November 2011, to less than $6,000 today.

The preschool’s new board, along with the board at the neighboring North Routt Community Charter School, also recently formed a joint committee that will apply for grants to help the school pay off its mortgage that totals nearly $200,000.

“It’s been a lot of work,” Crocker said. “But it’s rewarding.”

There is perhaps no better example in Routt County of how important early childhood centers are to parents than North Routt Preschool. There also is no better example of the challenges a center can face.

Shortly after the school closed, Stephanie Martin, the program supervisor for First Impressions of Routt County’s Early Childhood Council, told the Steamboat Today that like other preschools in the county, North Routt was not making enough money from its tuition to cover all of its expenses.

To raise tuition would make the preschool harder to afford for parents but to lower fees would cripple the school’s ability to cover the rising cost of utilities, payroll and other expenses needed to run a campus.

“A lot of child care programs are able to run in the red for years because of other sources of revenue or reserves, but because the North Routt Preschool is a newer program in a small community, they had less resources available to them,” Martin said.

The preschool did not have a reserve fund to tap into, but that has started to change in recent years.

Crocker said proceeds from a recent yard sale fundraiser will help boost an emergency fund at the school.

The campus also is partnering with its neighboring charter school to try and bring costs down further.

That could mean a single maintenance person for both campuses, for example.

“It’s so rewarding to get to where we are today,” Crocker said. “I really enjoy getting to spend all this time with these kids.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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