Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Little by little — State moving closer to preK education

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Keeping the attention of 11 4-year-olds long enough to sing a song or practice counting can be an impossible task, especially two weeks before Christmas. Yet Title I teacher Tricia Young at Nikiski North Star Elementary School was beating the odds Dec. 11.

Sort of.

One little girl was engrossed in trying to pull all her limbs into her shirt. Another girl’s attention was split between her Dorothy of Oz red glittery shoes and a cut on her leg, making sure to limp until a Band-Aid was applied. A boy was perhaps a little too attentive, jumping in with comments and answers whenever he had a chance.

Still, when the students were asked a question, their hands shot into the air. When told to “crisscross applesauce,” they dropped into a cross-legged position. And when a song required dance moves, limbs re-emerged from their cotton T-shirt entombment, and the previously immobile injured leg was miraculously healed.

In the pre-kindergarten class, that’s a big part of what learning entails — teaching 4-year-olds to listen, sit still, get along, pay attention and follow directions.

“It’s important. If they go into kindergarten knowing the social skills necessary to learn in school, they’re ready to go,” said Denise Cox, the preK teacher at Nikiski North Star.

There’s also an age-appropriate curriculum with academic skills, including the alphabet, colors and shapes, following a calendar and counting to 100. But it isn’t taught through lectures or sitting at desks.

“Our program is learning through play. We try to make it as playful as possible,” said Phyllis Oberhauser, a preK aide funded through the Salamatof Native Association.

A look around the cluttered classroom confirms that, with stacks of toys, puzzles and games, a box of dress-up clothes, fish tank and class pet cages, and art projects hanging anywhere there’s room. The kids take a music class and physical education, and have outside recess when the weather’s nice enough.

To the kids, school is fun time — at least after the initial period of adjusting to being away from home and their parents for part of the day.

“We do a lot of comforting the first few weeks,” Cox said.

To the education community, pre-kindergarten is a vital step in getting kids off to a good start.
“It’s called prevention versus intervention. If we catch them early on, we can prevent many of the difficulties students have once we get them in school,” said Doris Cannon, director of early education for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

Cannon said the results of research on the impact of preK education are clear — early education is tremendously beneficial in catching, addressing and preventing learning problems.

“We know that having universal preschool available to all — not mandatory, but available to all — would certainly be a benefit to our kids. It’s just a good opportunity for kids,” said district Superintendent Donna Peterson. “In my experience as an elementary teacher and principal, if there’s one place we could make the biggest difference, this would be it.”

Kids learn the basic rules of school and how it operates, and they get used to being away from home so when they get to kindergarten, they’re ready to jump in with learning. If students do have learning challenges, they can be identified and addressed before they get behind in school. Students also get an introduction to basic academic concepts, like ABCs and 123s, which some kids may get at home, and some may not.

“It kind of levels the playing field for a lot of kids,” said Robin Thye, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Nikiski North Star. “If they don’t have a strong background coming into school, the preK program really helps.”

Nikiski North Star’s preK program has been going for four years now. The first year Thye had kindergarteners from the preK program, she could tell a difference, she said. Of all the students who have gone through the preK class, so far none have needed special help later in school, Oberhauser said.

But as successful as the preK program is at Nikiski North Star, it’s the only public preK program in the district. That’s because the state doesn’t fund general, public preK education.

Special education preK programs are funded by the state, Head Start programs for low-income families get public funding, and there are some private, preK educational programs, generally run in conjunction with day care. But none address the needs of the general population of students.

That may be beginning to change. Gov. Sarah Palin announced a plan to include $2 million in next year’s budget for the state Department of Education and Early Development to try a pilot program for half-day preschool. It would serve about 500 kids around the state, and districts would apply for the money through grants.

It’s not universal, public, preK funding — which KPBSD is hoping for — but it’s a start.

“At least they’re talking about it. Just to have the discussion on the table is encouraging,” Cannon said.

If the pilot program happens and KPBSD were to participate in it, Cannon said the district would approach it like it does everything else — determine where the greatest need is and start from there. Ultimately, Cannon said the district doesn’t want to start something that isn’t sustainable, but hopes the state is moving in that direction.

“We wouldn’t want to have it for one year, then it’s gone. When they land somewhere and it’s sustainable, then we’ll be there,” she said.

At Nikiski North Star, the preK program exists because the school saw enough of a need for it that it decided to sacrifice in other areas of its budget to shuffle funding and make it happen. There used to be a preK, day care sort of program at the Church of the Nazarene in Nikiski, but that was canceled.
“Everyone started looking for other places to put their kids, and there just wasn’t anywhere,” said NNS Principal Lori Manion.

The school receives federal Title I money because of its percentage of students from low-income families. Parents started pushing for a solution to the lack of preK and day care options in Nikiski.
“The community really was screaming about a need for preK, and we looked at the research that said kids who get started in an early educational experience, we weren’t going to be doing intervention on them as they got older,” Manion said.

Four years ago, with the district’s blessing, the school rearranged its budget to offer one session of half-day preK. They did without a kindergarten through sixth-grade Title 1 interventionist aide to do it — “that was really hard,” Manion said — and Manion recruited Cox from her position as librarian to do preK part day and library the rest.

The success of the program was evident the first year, Manion said, with an added bonus of increased parental involvement. Parents are encouraged to volunteer in the preK classroom, helping with art projects, reading or anything else. Those parents typically stay involved as their kids progress through the grades, helping with fundraisers, volunteering in classrooms and joining the PTA.
“We have really capitalized on parents getting involved early on,” Manion said.

Ramona Malston volunteered in the classroom last year when her son, Kyle, was in preK. She said the half-day format was a great transition into full-day kindergarten.

“He was just very comfortable in that school environment going from being a stay-at-home child, he was pretty shy and I was pretty concerned about his being able to sit down and focus. He really learned a lot and they do a lot of fun activities,” she said.Richard Malston said preK gave Kyle a head start on academics — he counted to 29 on his own in a parent-teacher conference last year — and got him excited about school.

“The social interaction and learning, he had a good time and he was really excited about school. Of course, his older brother (Brady) was going to school so he wants to be like him,” Richard said.
The mandatory attendance school age is 6, so preK isn’t required for 4-year-olds. Even so, NNS added an afternoon preK session to meet the growing demand, with 15 kids in the morning and 15 in the afternoon.

There are still challenges. The little guys and girls needed smaller furniture, new curriculum materials and don’t always fit in with the hustle and bustle of the rest of the school, although Manion said they try to integrate preK as much as possible into assemblies and events.

Transportation is the biggest hurdle. Students are only allowed to ride on school buses if they’re 40 pounds or heavier, and not all preK 4-year-olds meet that requirement. Even if they do, buses only take them one way — to school for the morning session or back home for the afternoon session — since buses don’t run in the middle of the day. Manion said transportation funding would be crucial to creating a successful statewide preK program. In the meantime, the school is working with the Central Area Rural Transit System to find a solution.

At NNS, the benefits of the program far outweigh its challenges, Cox said.

“I can see nothing but positive. I don’t see the negative of it,” she said.

Peterson is hoping the state kicks in to make Nikiski’s success possible throughout the district.

“It isn’t a matter of the school district trying to make kids smarter or take education down to younger and younger ages, it’s just having quality opportunities for all children,” Peterson said. “We’re not trying to make readers out of 3-year-olds, we have age-appropriate activities for them. It’s a good thing. The earlier we can do age-appropriate things with children, the better off we’ll be.”

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