BISMARCK — We know overcrowding is a huge problem in elementary, middle and high schools across the state. But did you know it starts at age three?
The Bismarck Early Childhood Education Program (BECEP) in Bismarck is growing by leaps and bounds — so much so, it’s forcing the Bismarck Public School system to make a decision — and soon.
“BECEP doesn’t have boundaries. We get kiddos from the West and Northwest, the Southeast and Southwest. We are centralized, so all those kids can come to one place. So we get ’em first,” said Valerie Bakken, BECEP Coordinator/Administrator.
Currently, every classroom in the former Richholt school turned BECEP is full. In fact, students are spilling over into Miller Elementary.
But in order to fully grasp the overcrowding, it’s important to understand what BECEP is and what it does.
It’s a part of the Bismarck School System, and it wears many hats.
“We are only licensed to serve 119 Headstart children, so we have to be at the capacity at all times. Right now we have 119 students and we also have 146 that are on our waitlist,” said Bakken.
Another program under the BECEP umbrella is early childhood special education. That’s where you’ll find Tanya Williams.
“When that child is placed on an individual education plan and they turn three years old, they automatically come into our school system and we begin serving them in a classroom setting,” said Williams, an Early Childhood Special Education teacher.
And according to federal regulations, there can be no cap, unlike its headstart program.
Currently, 13 of the school’s 20 classrooms are filled with Early Childhood Special Education students.
BECEP is required to take in every child that qualifies.
“We’re bursting at the seams. We have children that come into this room with equipment, so we need to find a place to store all this equipment,” said Williams.
One of the most difficult parts is planning. No matter what month a child turns three, they’re accepted into the program. And so, Bakken said, the kids just keep coming.
BECEP’s projections through May of 2020 are for 390 students. However, they’re already at 380 kids, with six months to go.
“I know at the school board meeting they had looked at modular or the use of portables. I think that there’s a lot of options out there and we definitely have options, it’s just trying to figure out what’s best for our students and our families,” said Bakken.
There will be a workshop on Monday, Dec. 16, in which Bismarck Public School officials will explore some of the options to the increasingly crowded conditions.