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At the District 65 School Board’s Jan. 23 meeting, a panel of early childhood educators presented a report on the District’s pre-kindergarten programs for children, ages 0-3 and 3-5. There are a variety of programs and many funding sources woven together to provide a “seamless education approach to the developmental needs of our children in an effort to strengthen their skills and to ensure a more successful entry into kindergarten,” says a memo presented to the Board.
“This is an incredibly hard-working group of people who come early and stay late,” said Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services. “They work hard to address the many needs that we have that include not just the learning needs, but developmental and social and emotional needs, both with students and families.”
“It’s important to underline the fact that every student that comes into our preschool program has risk factors and that’s how they come into our program,” said Ms. Bartz. “We work with these children to help them develop. The program is very extensive.”
The 0-3 Age-Group
Angela Johnson, Family Center Coordinator, emphasized from the start, “It is vitally important that we build partnerships with parents to assist them to become advocates for their child and to improve the learning environment in the home.”
A baby’s brain is forming 700 synapses per second, says a memo to the Board. “Birth to age five is the most rapid period of brain development, and sets the foundation for all future learning, health, and success.”
Research shows that a parent’s and caregiver’s give-and-take interactions with a baby, through reading, talking, singing, or playing, are critical to promote healthy brain development.
“Without the parent partnerships our work is probably null and void,” said Ms. Johnson. “So we work closely with parents.”
The District has two programs that serve the 0-3 age group and their families: a center-based program at the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center (JEH Center), and a home-visit program.
The center-based program serves 29 students, and operates from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays, all year. There are three teachers and 8 children per classroom, for a teacher/child ratio of 1:3. Teachers conduct two home visits and two teacher-parent conferences each year.
The home-visit program serves 120 students. “We have five family advocates who go into the home twice a month to provide services to the family,” said Ms. Johnson.
She said the home-visit advocates provide parents with examples of “interactive activities” that they can engage in with their children and that are designed to support early development and early literacy skills. The advocates also “stress the importance that they [parents] are their children’s first teachers and that everything that children do is an opportunity for children to learn.”
“We assist families to understand their children’s development, and what the research says about school readiness,” said Ms. Johnson. “We support parents in their role as their child’s first teacher and empower them to be advocates for their children.”
The advocates also provide case management services, and “ensure families are meeting the needs of the family and therefore can meet the needs of the child,” said Ms. Johnson. The District collaborates with 29 community agencies and institutions, “so when families have needs we’re able to find someone who can assist them” and make referrals.
The advocates also provide clinical and non-clinical counseling, and parenting workshops. They encourage parents to build up a network of parents in their neighborhoods.
Both the center-based and the home-visit programs provide assessments and screening for health, mental health, child abuse and neglect, and the well-being of the family unit.
“JEH is the home school for everybody in the District, so the diversity that exists here, the cultural impact is impressive, said Amy Small, Director of JEH Center. Every day when we walk through our hallways, we’re always celebrating both the similarities and the differences between us, but it is always our common goal that we have success for our individuals both as educators, our children, and our families.”
The JEH Center serves about 335 students, ages 3-5. The curriculum is research-based, diverse, and teachers use a “strength-based” approach, in which they “build learning opportunities based on the individual abilities of the children,” said Ms. Small.
“The curriculum is developed through teacher observations and an evaluation of each child. Concepts and skills appropriate to each child’s stage of development are introduced with the goal of reinforcing social, emotional, physical, cultural, and intellectual growth,” said Ms. Small in a memo to the Board.
The learning environment is “rich in verbal experiences” and “an anti-bias, multicultural, and social emotional approach to learning” is woven through the curriculum.
The Center has a wide range of specialists on staff who provide supportive services, such as for speech and language, occupational and physical therapy, and counseling.
People are amazed when they see the scope of services available, said Ms. Small. “Families feel safe and they know that their children are getting both push-in and pull-out services based on an individual program that’s been developed with the families and the staff.”
Ms. Small said there are 38 learning objectives that are essential for kindergarten readiness. They have been categorized into 10 domains: social and emotional; physical; language; cognition; literacy; math; science and technology; social studies; the arts; and English language acquisition.
She said the learning objectives are used to develop lesson plans, to develop individualized goals for each child, and to monitor progress.
If a child is not prepared in one of the areas, “the child is not prepared for kindergarten,” said Ms. Small.
She noted that District 65’s achievement reports have defined kindergarten readiness solely in terms of meeting certain benchmarks on the ISEL test that assesses certain early literacy skills. While saying that literacy was critically important, she emphasized that children need to be prepared in many other areas.
As an example, she said, “Without social and emotional regulation a child wouldn’t be able to receive all the other types of learning that exist. We are proud of being able to look at the whole child.”
“We not only support the children, but we also support the parents at JEH,” Ms. Small said, adding, “A vital link in the success of our program is parent support and involvement. We rely on parents to positively support the program, children, and staff in order for the goals of the program to be achieved. We believe that the partnership between the home and school is critical in these early years of development and educational success.”
Ms. Small said they also have collaborative relationships with many community organizations. “It helps build a strength and a common vision for our early learners and also our community as a whole. Some organizations include the Evanston Public Library, the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, Cradle to Career, Evanston Township High School, and Connections for the Homeless.
A group of District 65 administrators, kindergarten teachers, and pre-school teachers in the District worked in collaboration to define the needed skills that best prepared the children for kindergarten. They are:
- Regulates own emotional behavior
- Establishes and sustains positive relationships
- Participates cooperatively and constructively in group situations
- Listens to and understands increasingly complex language
- Uses language to express thoughts and needs
- Has appropriate conversations and other communication skills
- Demonstrates positive approaches to learning
- Remembers and connects experiences
- Has classification skills
- Uses symbols and images to represent something not present
- Demonstrates phonological awareness
- Demonstrates knowledge of the alphabet (Using District 65’s kindergarten readiness definition which relies on the ISEL letter recognition assessment and the 50th percentile).
- Demonstrates knowledge of print and other uses.
- Comprehends and responds to books and other texts
- Demonstrates emergent writing skills
- Uses number concepts and operations
- Explores and describes spatial relationships and shape
- Demonstrates knowledge of patterns