LONGMONT — Erin Jones sat on the floor with a small semicircle of preschoolers talking about the letter M.
The early childhood special education teacher at Rocky Mountain Elementary School attempted to get her tiny charges to come up with the names of animals that begin with that letter.
The eager children raised their hands and threw out names such as monkey and mouse before they got stumped.
When asked what other words began with the letter M, they came up with mailbox and mountains, with some well-placed coaching from their teacher.
Jones has been teaching the 3- to 5-year-olds two new letters a week for the past couple of months. Being able to recognize letters, words and language is an important part of preparing children to enter kindergarten, but, she said, most of her students would not have been ready to learn letters earlier in the year.
As she repeated words like monkey and mountains, Jones had her students clap out the syllables.
“Now we are starting to process that letters have sounds and that those sounds have meaning,” Jones said.
It’s all about exposure.
About half of her students, in both of her preschool classes, have speech or language impediments. A handful have disabilities such as autism and cerebral palsy.
Rocky Mountain Elementary is one of three district preschools that service high-needs special-education students.
Research shows that every $1 spent on early intervention translates into $7-$10 in savings on special education and extra services later on, Jones said.
And her students love school.
“They are bummed out if they can’t come,” Jones said. “That tells us we’re doing something right.”
Pam Edinger, St. Vrain’s special-education director for early childhood programs, said she dreams of the day when schools are mandated and receive funding to educate children ages 4 and up.
The Colorado General Assembly in April voted to make half-day kindergarten mandatory across the state, she said.
That paves the way for preschool to become mandatory as well, Edinger said.
A recently released national study, sponsored by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Kauffman Foundation and the Ford Foundation, details the importance of early childhood development and outlines key indicators that show whether children are ready for school by the time they enter kindergarten.
“Too many children enter kindergarten with physical, social, emotional and cognitive limitations that could have been minimized or eliminated through early attention to child and family needs,” the report stated.
The study’s authors claim that “children who are not performing proficiently in reading by the end of third grade are at very high risk for poor long-term outcomes, such as dropping out of school, teen pregnancy and juvenile crime.”
St. Vrain’s early childhood programs pay close attention to the five major school readiness indicators spelled out in the report: physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, language development and cognition and general knowledge.
Although prekindergarten is not mandated by the state, St. Vrain offers fee-based preschool classes at 15 of its elementary schools. The preschool program, which is operated out of the district’s community schools program, serves between 750 and 800 students across the district. The state pays for those students who qualify for the Colorado Preschool Program, which targets at-risk 4-year-olds.
This year, St. Vrain had 77 slots for the Colorado Preschool Program. The state Legislature just bumped that up to 90 slots for next year, and school districts in the state can apply for additional slots out of a pool of 1,310.
“We place about 15 slots in community preschools,” Edinger said. The rest are handled by district elementary schools.
The district just reapplied for the 77 slots it had this year, but Edinger estimated another 316 children across the district could have qualified for the program.
“There are over 200 kids we are not able to serve,” she said.
The Head Start program in Longmont provides 160 preschool slots for at-risk children ages 3 to 5.
Preschool special education also is provided for children ages 3 to 5 within the school district. St. Vrain’s Child Find program helps identify children with disabilities from birth to age 5 and directs them to agencies that can address their needs. (See accompanying story.)
“One of our dreams is universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, but (the state) couldn’t move to mandate preschool when kindergarten wasn’t mandated,” Edinger said.
The push to improve early childhood education stems from research that shows that “85 percent of a child’s brain growth happens before age 4, but funding doesn’t start until age 5,” Edinger said.
The state does reimburse St. Vrain for its half-day kindergarten program, but will give the district only half of a student’s per pupil operating revenue even if full-day kindergarten classes are offered, she said.
As part of its efforts to improve its prekindergarten offerings, St. Vrain is taking advantage of two grants, one of which looks at school readiness at Columbine and Spangler elementary schools. Through the grant, a team will conduct pre- and post-testing at the schools’ preschool programs.
“The object is to improve the quality of those programs,” said Edinger.
Programs need to focus on the whole child, she added, including health, safety, skills and interactions with teachers and parents.
As part of the Colorado Department of Education’s Child Outcome Project grant, St. Vrain is one of nine districts across the state implementing a new preschool curriculum next year.
The Creative Curriculum is one of the options the district could choose from because it has an assessment component to it, Edinger said.
It shows teachers the sequence of steps children take as they learn particular skills and concepts in all areas of their development, according to Teaching Strategies Inc., the company that developed the curriculum for children ages 3-5.
It is a tool for planning instruction and assessing learning, the company’s Web site states.
Although Colorado has no plans to make children under age 5 take Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, “we have to be accountable to them,” Edinger said.
The Child Outcome Project is a four- to five-year program that measures outcomes.
“We look at third-grade CSAP scores for children who have been in the Colorado Preschool Program, and they do better than the average third-grader in St. Vrain and better than the average third-grader in Colorado,” she said.
District and Head Start preschool teachers will be trained in the curriculum in June.
Jones and other preschool teachers continually fight a stigma that prekindergarten education is “fluff,” play time or glorified day care, Jones said.
Preschool is so much more than that, she said.
It teaches children social skills, like how to play with others, how to wash their hands, how to tell a friend they don’t like something with words, share, wait their turn, stand in line, find their way to the lavatory by themselves, speak, sit still for 20 minutes, look at books, hold them correctly and listen to someone reading, she said.
Many agencies are beginning to recognize the importance of early childhood education and have started task forces to look at what options are available in the community and how they can work together.
The Early Care and Education Council of Boulder County was founded about five years ago to find ways to ensure that all young children in Boulder County have a healthy start in life and are ready to learn when they enter school. The council includes representatives from local government, school districts, health and human service agencies, child-care and children’s services agencies.
In 2003, Longmont Mayor Julia Pirnack gathered a group together to look at ways the Longmont community could work together to expand and improve child-care and early education opportunities for Longmont families.
One proposal to the Longmont City Council and St. Vrain Valley Board of Education was to expand Head Start services, specifically targeting children ages 3-4.
The goal of early childhood education is “to teach kids to love to learn” at an early age, said Mary Kay Cialone, district coordinator for St. Vrain Valley Community Schools.
Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at email@example.com.