by Jeanna White
“What letter is this, and do you know what sound it makes?” the teacher asked as she pulled a lettered popsicle stick from the jar. One preschooler answered, “That’s “M” for Munching Mike,“ while five others quickly made a “MMMMMM” sound.
“Letter Zoom” is just one of the many ways Pinebrook preschool teacher, Katie Wagstaff, is preparing her class of eighteen four and five-year olds for kindergarten next year.
Studies indicate that the environmental factors that put children at risk and keep them from being successful students can be minimized if quality preschool opportunities are obtained and interventions are made at an early age. But these eighteen preschoolers would not be receiving the benefits of preschool were it not for a joint grant from the Mebane Foundation, Davie Community Foundation, and the County of Davie.
Last fall, each of these three funders awarded $35,167, one-third of the project cost, to support the Healthy Davie Preschool Project. The Project paid to create and staff one new preschool class at Pinebrook Elementary School where there was an available classroom. This allowed eighteen at-risk four-year olds to be taken off the Davie County Social Services waiting list for childcare/preschool scholarships and placed in the new classroom organized under the Davie County Schools Preschool Program. At-risk status was based on income, chronic health concerns, special educational needs, or a military status that requires the family to move frequently.
The Healthy Davie Preschool Project is part of the Healthy Davie Initiative launched by the foundations in December 2014 to encourage collaboration and cooperation among Davie County non-profits and agencies in addressing education, health and poverty.
Larry Colbourne, President of Mebane Foundation said, “The fact that three local funders came together to make attending a NC Pre-K program a reality for 18 local children and their families is a powerful statement. It’s a testament to how this community values equal access for all to a strong early childhood development program.”
Recognizing that a quality preschool program can play such a significant role in a child’s development, the foundations looked to Davie County Schools, and its proven track record through the NC Pre-K Program, to provide a program that would help the children reach their full potential.
Davie County Schools reported that 95% of the children attending the Davie County Schools Preschool Program tested as ready for kindergarten based upon Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning (DIAL) screening scores while 63% of children from other programs tested ready for kindergarten. Of the 30% of 2015-2016 rising kindergarten students identified by the DIAL screening tool as having potential delays or at-risk factors, 46% had had no previous preschool experience.
The DIAL assessment tests a child’s motor skills (skipping, jumping, cutting, writing), conceptual skills (knowledge of colors, counting), and language skills (knowledge of letters and words, ability to solve problems). In addition, the Parent and Teacher Questionnaires measure a child’s self-help skills (dressing, feeding, bathing) and social-emotional skills (getting along with others, staying on task). The skills measured by the DIAL are proven to help predict a child’s success in the classroom.
The DIAL screening test can help parents and teachers decide if a child’s skills are appropriate for his/her age or if further testing or interventions are needed. This information can help with planning the child’s education and, if necessary, can help parents and teachers address any needs the child may have at home or in school.
Wagstaff, a veteran preschool teacher with six years experience in a More at Four program followed by six years in a Pre-K inclusion class for children with developmental delays, is well-prepared to recognize her students’ strengths as well meet their needs. She is assisted by Alisa Allen who has worked in early childhood education for 24 years. This is her 10th year working in the Davie County Preschool Program where she has worked in classrooms with 2’s, 3’s and 4-year olds.
For those having difficulties, Wagstaff incorporates many of the same strategies she learned in the inclusion class such as lots of repetition, modeling, reminders, and working one on one to accomplish small goals. She tries to provide a balance of structure and love in her classroom and has been pleased with the students’ progress so far.
“These eighteen children are getting something they really need this year to be successful in kindergarten next year,” she said. “We try to work with every child on an individual basis to meet their needs the best we can. Some of the children would have had difficulty functioning behaviorally and academically next year, but I’ve seen a lot of improvement and growth.”
The success of the students will be tracked through third grade and evidence gathered to evaluate the success of the program. So far, parents have been thrilled with their children’s progress.
“My son has learned so much,” said one mother. “He comes home every day and talks about Letterland characters and measurements and how he has made so many friends. He loves his teachers and his classmates and hates missing school when he is sick.”
“He has always been a tenderhearted, emotional child, but he has gained a backbone and has learned to interact with other children. I wasn’t sure how he would like school since he had always been home with me, but he has absolutely loved it,” she added.
The students are not the only ones learning through the Healthy Davie Preschool Program.
Wagstaff offers monthly parent/child activities to teach parents what is expected in kindergarten and has been pleased with almost 100% participation. Past activities have included decorating pumpkins, making pumpkin bracelets, cutting out pumpkins, and making gingerbread houses and gingerbread men and then telling the story of the gingerbread man. Each activity teaches a skill like cutting, sorting, and sequencing.
“A parent is a child’s first and most important teacher. These activities show the parents how their child is progressing and what they can do to help them at home,” she said.
Parents have also attended workshops focused on nutrition, child development, financial management, healthy living, and career planning. This parent education portion of the program has been supported by community partners Just Hope Inc., Davie County Department of Social Services, NC Cooperative Extension Services, Smart Start of Davie, and others.
Colbourne summed it up with “When we can make strides to improve every child’s chance to be kindergarten-ready we’re also increasing their chances of success not only in the later grades, but in life. Now that’s powerful!”