When one of my sons was very young, we noticed he had a very hard time separating from us when we needed to take him to daycare or anywhere for that matter. He’d scream, cry and throw a fit. He did not handle change very well and often responded with intense emotions. Now this isn’t an uncommon behavior among 3 year olds, but when both parents have to work, it becomes a daily torment. As a parent, I had concerns about the eventuality of school; as an educator, I knew there were some very important skills he needed to have to be successful in school. And as a high school teacher that worked with teenagers, I knew I didn’t have enough of a background in early childhood to do this on my own. Fortunately, the district I lived in had a strong ECFE program, that led into a strong School Readiness program. So, we went to ECFE together and met other families and worked on improving his response to change. By the time he was 4, we were ready for the school readiness program that focused on some of the more academic skills. And when our son went to kindergarten, he was better able to handle change, better equipped socially and able to thrive. He is now a successful adult with a good steady job, his own family and home. The importance of those early years, and building confindence in children, cannot be overestimated.
Fosston ISD 601 operates two school readiness programs under the larger early childhood umbrella (which includes ECFE). One program is designed for children who are three by September 1st, and a separate program for children who are 4 by September 1 of the year. The 3 year old program operates out of the former Home Ec room at Fosston High School, while the 4 year old program is housed in classrooms at Magelssen Elementary.
The 3 year old program meets for two hours one day each week. There are specific academic concepts that have been identified as predictors of school success - reasoning, literacy and language that students are introduced to during their class. Students also develop skills such as listening, taking turns, responding appropriately to directions, working well with others, managing strong emotions, identifying emotions, developing empathy and developing coordination in movement. Children in the 3 year old program are exposed to to those concepts through play. During the two hours in school, children experience activity tables with art supplies, pretend play areas, puzzles and free play areas. During a recent visit to the classroom, I noted three boys using toy “heavy equipment” to cooperatively load, transport and unload toys. Children worked with the two adults in the room sorting, making patterns and identifying numbers -- as a game. A high school student was in the room, as part of a school to work program, actively engaging in reading with the children and helping them with their play. This high school student shared that she was considering a career in education -- maybe working as a para-educator, or with special needs students. Language use and problem solving were at the fore-front of all the activities. There are currently 24 3 year olds in the program that are divided into three class groups. Students in the 3 year old program are brought to school by their parents, and picked up when class is complete.
The 4 year old program meets two full days per week. Students can ride the school bus, and they follow the elementary school schedule. The 4 year old students have access to the elementary library, playground/gymnasium and cafeteria. There are currently two classrooms, each staffed by a teacher and para-educator. Additionally, Head Start co-locates and provides a teacher as well. There are currently 48 children involved, and they are divided into 4 sections. Much like the 3 year olds, learning is play based, with different stations, activities and games with a purpose. Program staff know that academic skills will be stronger if children can identify and manage their emotions, have empathy for others, can take turns, can listen, can communicate and can follow directions (social emotional learning), so many of the activities focus on building those skills while developing academic skills. Children dive into more school related concepts like understanding letter sounds, rhyming and alliteration. Participants also develop a comfort level with the structure, routine and environment of the elementary school. Over time, it has been apparent that children who participate in a quality early childhood program like the one Fosston ISD 601 provides, tend to do better upon entering formal school, than do their peers who do not participate.
School readiness programming is paid for using a variety of funding sources. For qualifying families, the state provides Pathways scholarships which are used to pay for programming. These are awarded based on income, and families qualify by completing the Federal School Lunch form. Families that qualify for reduced price lunches on the form pay a fee of $300. And finally, families that do not qualify for the Pathways scholarship pay a fee of $495 for the year. A small amount of levied funds is included in the budget, under the Community Education levy. The district has applied, in previous years, for Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (VPK) funding from the state, but has not been awarded any funds; we will continue to apply, with the hopes that the state frees up additional monies.
Since fall programming began, we’ve observed the rise in confidence levels. At the beginning of the 3 year old program, two or three of the children had a reaction similar to my son’s -- crying and resistance to parent’s leaving. Before break, I heard two of those children excitedly talking to each other. One said, “Look, here comes teacher!”. And when their teacher was ready to bring them to the classroom, there were no tears -- they walked confidently away from their parents.
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