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School district’s preschool program fills a need

Published: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 10:34 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 11:33 a.m. CDT
(Submitted Photo)
A para-educator reads a book to Emerson Hough Preschool students during center time. Center time is a daily occurrence for preschoolers in the Newton Community School District.
(Submitted Photo)
Emerson Hough Preschool students look at a sewing machine during their study of clothes. Throughout the study, students learned how clothes were made and were able to sew with teacher assistance. The hands-on learning experience is one of the new elements added to the school district's preschool program this year.

In today’s world, the earlier a child begins his or her education, the better. That was one of the guiding principles that led the Newton Community School District to implement its 4-year-old preschool program.

“Four years ago, we wrote a grant through the State Voluntary Preschool Grant program,” Director of Elementary Educational Services Jim Gilbert said. “We hadn’t had a 4-year-old preschool program before that, although we did have the 3-year-old program, which we still have.”

The 3-year-old program is intended as a means to provide early integration for students with special needs. Students who have been identified as needing special education are integrated with non-special-needs students from volunteer families in the community.

The newer, 4-year-old program is separate from that and has entirely different goals.

“At the time the grant was offered, we conducted a longitudinal study of the elementary students, and we asked what percentage of kindergarteners had preschool experience; we found 20 percent did not, which became the impetus for the going forward,” Gilbert said. “We worked with area providers, because we obviously didn’t want to tread on their market, so we asked why those in the 20 percent didn’t go to preschool. Almost all of them said it was the cost, so we wrote our grant specifically to target families who find it difficult to afford a preschool education for their children.”

Preschool Coordinator Jamie Cranston said this is the fourth full year for the preschool program in the Newton Community School District. The program for 4-year-olds has been housed at Emerson Hough since its inception, and the program has continued to grow from its original program with just two teachers and a part-time coordinator.

The program features morning and afternoon sessions of three hours each. Each day, students take part in a project-based learning experience — a new addition this year — as well as small group instruction in mathematics and literacy and large-group discussions focused on social and emotional development.

“They also have a story time, and there’s a snack and some gross motor time (recess), which we prefer to have outdoors,” Cranston said. “Then, they have some center time, which is adult-facilitated play time.”

The project-based learning is one of a few big changes this school year for the program. The program is intended to get students to ask questions and explore answers and is not tied to a specific learning outcome.

“For instance, one session topic might be on clothes,” Cranston said. “The morning group could make observations about clothes, while the afternoon group could talk about clothes other people wear.”

Another big change this year has been a change in curriculum from one published by Houghton Mifflin to one produced by Creative Curriculum. Cranston said the changes will result in greater parental involvement in the students’ learning process.

“We’re always striving for parental involvement, like our Parent Night,” she added. “We’re doing well, but we want to make it stronger.”

Gilbert said the earlier parents become involved in their children’s education, the easier it is for both the parents and children to value that education. He said studies have shown that children who have their education reinforced at home have a higher rate of success in school.

Another element helping teachers in the classroom, now in its third year in the preschool program, is the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment system. Cranston said the system requires teachers to make anecdotal notes periodically to show individual students’ growth in certain areas.

“For the first year and a half, we were learning how to do it, and for the past year and a half, we’ve been using it to inform our teaching,” she said. “Every Wednesday morning, we get together to make our groups based on what kids need to learn.”

In a way, the program allows the teachers to tailor their teaching to the individual needs of their students.

The current school year has resulted in another big change with the preschool program. Two of the program’s teachers moved to Berg Elementary to teach kindergarten and transitional kindergarten, and the promotion of Cranston from part-time teacher/part-time coordinator to full-time coordinator, have resulted in a almost entirely new slate of teachers.

“We needed another section to deal with the waiting list for the program, and the coordinator was moving to a full-time position,” Cranston said. “So, this year, we hired four brand-new teachers, which means our staff is all new, which is very exciting.”

Cranston also noted the amount of training the preschool’s paraeducators receive each year. Gilbert said it adds to the district’s goal of high quality assurance for the program.

“They get extra training, beyond what the normal paras or associates get in the elementary schools. There’s training from the AEA and background checks, which result in formal licensure,” she said. “We also provide additional training on anything we train our teachers on, usually about four times a year. It’s something we pride ourselves on.”

Daily News Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at beschliman@newtondailynews.com.

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