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Not too young to learn
Preschool programs paying off
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Symphanie Collins works to zip the jacket on her doll during class.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Martinsville Schools have increased their preschool programs in recent years to help prepare children for kindergarten.

And the programs are paying off with improved test scores, fewer students requiring special education services and the city's preschool programs being considered as a model for other systems.

School Superintendent Scott Kizner said the system has three preschool programs.

One program is for children aged 2-5 who have mental, physical, language or developmental disabilities. The latter refers to children who are behind their chronological age because of difficulties with such things as counting, reading, school readiness skills, fine and gross motor skills, and ability to pay attention, sit and be in a school setting, he said.

This program has been in place for many years and is required by the state and federal governments, he said.

Kizner said the school system also offers programs for 4-yer-olds and another for 3-year-olds who are developmentally behind children their age. These programs are not required by the state and/or federal governments, he said.

The school system has expanded its program for 4-year-olds in recent years, and it started the program for 3-year-olds (called WEE 3) about two years ago. "Many of our children were entering school two to three years behind their chronological age," Kizner said.

To read, children first must be read to, Kizner said. And if children have difficulty understanding what is read to them, they will have difficulty when they read themselves, he said.

"When you are in a community existing with poverty, children from upper and middle class are exposed to more vocabulary" when they are read to more often and taken to museums, libraries on trips, Kizner said. For example, if a parent takes a youngster to a national forest, the parent might talk to the child about nature, which expands the child's vocabulary, Kizner said.

"We are encouraging parents to read to their kids at least 30 minutes every day. Vocabulary is lifelong skill to be successful in school, work and society, Kizner said.

"We read to the children (in preschool programs); they do writing; we take them on trips; we take them to the circus," Kizner said.

Also, children get a chance to play with other children, something that has not occurred much before for some of the youngsters, he said.

He said a lot of these children do not have transportation and some have not been outside of Martinsville.

On average, 80 percent of the children in the three preschool programs are below the federal poverty level, compared with 57 percent for the school system as a whole, Kizner said.

For four years, the school system has been monitoring children who had been in preschool programs from kindergarten through higher grades.

Virginia schools measure a student's readiness for kindergarten at age 5 by a test called Phonological Assessment Literacy Screening (PALS), which measures expressive language (more than a yes/no or other very simple answer), early letter recognition and other skills necessary for learning reading.

In the 2005-06 school year, 80 percent of the children who had been in the preschool programs passed PALS when they entered kindergarten, compared with 60 percent for the entire kindergarten, Kizner said. In third grade in 2006-2007, 100 percent of children who had been in the school system's preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds at risk of academic failure passed PALS, compared with 86 percent for the third grade as a whole, he said.

Harry Davis, director of the early childhood program for the school system, said 98 percent of children in preschool programs last year passed PALS in the fall of this school year in kindergarten.

Kizner pointed out that in 2006-07, for the first time, the third-grade Standard of Learning scores for the entire school system were above the state benchmark. He added that research shows that students must be reading on grade level at grade 3 or they risk falling behind.

Also, Kizner said, the number of students in special education in kindergarten through fifth grade in the city schools has fallen by 4 percent over five years. Kizner attributes that to the preschool programs and some other early intervention programs, such as reading specialists serving younger grades, teams of teachers identifying students with weaknesses and providing more individualized instruction for students needing help).

The 4 percent reduction over five years has saved an estimated total of $260,000, Kizner said. In the 2005-06 school year (the most recent figures available), it cost about $15,800 to educate an elementary school student with a disability, compared with $8,100 to educate a nondisabled elementary school student, Kizner said.

The Martinsville system's efforts are drawing attention. Kizner was asked to serve on two governor's committees, one on what should be taught in preschool programs for 4-year-olds and one on which readiness skills are needed when students enter school.

Kizner also said the school system receives many visitors who want to learn more about the preschool programs.

"We're seeing really good results," Kizner said of the preschool programs. But, he added, "We have a long way to go."�

The program for 3-year-olds has about 24 students, and the program for 4-year-olds has 48 students, Davis said. Nine students are in the program for 2- to 5-year-olds with disabilities.

This school year, about 30 children were turned away from the program for 3-year-olds and about 20 children were turned away from the program for 4-year-olds because the school system did not have enough staff.

The program for 3-year-olds is funded locally and costs nearly $200,000 a year. Kizner said. The program for 4-year-olds costs about $8,000 per child, of which the state pays $5,400 and the rest is funded locally, Kizner said.

"We'd rather make the investment while the child is young," Kizner said.

Children are most ready to learn at young ages, their brains are developing, curiosity is growing and they are like sponges, he said. If "we are able to tap into that at an early age, we can make significantly more progress in working through a learning disability with a 3-year old than you can with a 5 or 6-year old."�

Davis said an important component of the preschool programs involves parents. Parents are required to attend parenting class each month though Piedmont Community Services under a contract with the school system. Parents are taught how to reinforce to their children what teachers are teaching in the classroom, through such things as reading and questioning their comprehension, vocabulary skills, etc.

Kizner also attributed successes in the preschool programs to such things as the dedication and training of teachers and assistants, and teachers and administrators visiting students' homes periodically to better understand the children's environments.

The preschool programs are at the Clearview Early Childhood Center.


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