Geoff Liesik, Deseret News
A results-based financing model approved by the Salt Lake County Council has expanded public preschool in the county by 600 students.

SALT LAKE CITY — Preschool students at Gerald Wright Elementary School received a special visit Thursday from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and County Council members Sam Granato and Richard Snelgrove.

The classroom was one of 12 new public preschool programs added this year in Granite School District through a results-based funding expansion approved this summer by the County Council.

Through the expansion, an additional 600 at-risk students have been able to participate in early childhood education this year, which McAdams described as a "game-changer" and a "shot at life."

"What we’re seeing today is the fruits of what happens when Republicans and Democrats work together with the private sector and others in our community," he said. "These kids would not be in this classroom today were it not for this collaboration."

Under the county's financing model — similar to one proposed at the state level that failed to gain lawmakers' support — private investors loan funding to the county for preschool services, which is then repaid with interest if the program proves successful at maintaining students at grade level through third grade.

The program is designed for English language learners and students from economically disadvantaged families who are statistically more likely to enter kindergarten behind their peers and struggle to catch up.

By investing early in a child's education, McAdams said, the county not only hopes to better prepare children for coursework but also save on taxpayer costs related to special education, law enforcement, and drug and gang intervention.

"Our studies showed that spending $1 in preschool to fund a program like this means we will save $14 of taxpayer money by cost avoidance through other programs these kids would fall into," he said.

Gerald Wright Elementary preschool teacher Lindsay Shackelford said the program is structured but fun for students. She said children who participate are better prepared when they transition into kindergarten.

"We've had a lot of at-risk students that are able to come through our program," Shackelford said. "By the time they go (to kindergarten), they are ready to learn."

The expanded program has allowed the Granite School District to add 12 new preschool classrooms at six elementary schools, bringing the district's total to 83 classrooms at 49 schools, according to Brenda Van Gorder, preschool services director.

But even with the expansion, Van Gorder said the demand for preschool services remains. Roughly 50 percent of students in Granite School District qualify for free or reduced price lunch, she said, and each year 5,000 kindergarten students enter the district.

With those numbers, Van Gorder said there are potentially 2,500 3-year-olds and 2,500 4-year-olds each year in need of the public preschool program, which currently has room for 3,000 children.

"We still have about 200 kids right now (on a waitlist), but it's growing every day," she said.

McAdams said he hopes the program will continue to expand, should the financing model prove successful.

"This is really a pilot program," he said. "There is a huge unmet need."

Snelgrove, a Republican member of the Salt Lake County Council, said the public preschool program is a win-win initiative for the county and a tool to combat poverty.

By giving children an early start, particularly those without the same opportunities as other children, they are better prepared to be competitive in the classroom and the job market later in life, he said.

"I can’t think of anything better than a program like this to help break the cycle of poverty," Snelgrove said. "You fight poverty with prosperity, and prosperity comes about through a good education, and this is where it all starts."

Email: [email protected], Twitter: bjaminwood