Local Preschool Curriculum Sets Foundation for Education
By SCOTT McCLOSKEY
WHEELING — National research has proven children who participate in high-quality preschool programs have better health, social-emotional and cognitive outcomes than those who do not, and the future of preschool options in West Virginia and Ohio is looking much brighter, according to state and local education officials.
West Virginia’s preschool program, called West Virginia Universal Pre-K, is available in all 55 counties of the state. The term universal pre-k (pre-kindergarten) means it is available for any child, regardless of the child’s abilities and family income, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
West Virginia is one of a handful of states in the nation with free voluntary universal pre-k for all 4-year-old children and for 3-year-old children with special needs. In 2017, The National Institute for Early Education Research noted that West Virginia is one of five states in the nation to meet all 10 quality benchmarks for its universal pre-k program, and it placed West Virginia as sixth in the nation for access for 4-year-olds (seventh in the nation for access for 3-year-olds).
Ohio County Schools Student Services Director Raquel McLeod said while universal pre-k is not required by the West Virginia Department of Education and is voluntary, Ohio County Schools officials work to increase the program’s enrollment each year.
She said the Ohio County Pre-K program is a tremendous benefit to the children who are enrolled in it. She noted 73 percent of Ohio County Schools’ current kindergarten students took part, ensuring those students were already acclimated to the classroom environment before starting kindergarten.
“The instruction focuses on exploration and discovery as ways of learning,” McLeod said.
“The children are offered hands-on learning, problem-solving and interaction with peers that establishes important relationships.
“They get the opportunity to work together in a cooperative setting. These experiences are the beginning and foundation of their education,” she added.
“Pre-k is the foundation for the expectations of kindergarten,” McLeod continued. “Those expectations include academics, but they also include social and emotional aspects as well. Kindergarten teachers can differentiate a student who attended pre-k from a student who did not. It’s apparent in a student’s understanding of rules and expectations in the classroom and on the results of screenings and assessments,” she added.
McLeod believes Ohio County Schools Universal Pre-K Program, which has been in place for more than a decade, is the finest in West Virginia. McLeod said the program is a child’s first step toward mastering the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Nineteen Ohio County sites offer 4-year-old students a four-day-per-week program that aims to meet their social, cognitive, linguistic, emotional, cultural and physical needs.
While preschool is not mandated in the state of Ohio, Early Childhood Education Grants are awarded to preschool programs that are required to provide comprehensive services that support a child’s growth and learning using developmentally appropriate practices, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Ohio allocates $73 million annually to preschool programs. In order to best support school readiness, the funds are awarded to existing high-quality early learning programs within high-needs areas of the state.
Diane Thompson, assistant superintendent/director of special education for St. Clairsville-Richland City Schools, said while that district does not offer “universal” preschool it does have two 5-Star Step Up to Quality Pre-School classrooms with 32 children enrolled. She said each classroom has 16 students, with eight students who are in need of special instruction. The program runs from 8:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Thursday.
“Step Up to Quality is a rigorous rating system that evaluates programs based upon meeting various criteria. Although we receive some funding from ODE, it does not come close to meeting the costs of running such a program. However, those familiar with what a quality preschool program can do for a child find the benefits of a well-run program worth the expenditures,” Thompson said.
In addition, she said there are Headstart and private preschool programs available throughout Belmont County as well.
“I cannot adequately tout the benefits of preschool programs. The New York Times magazine feature last week called preschool teachers ‘the most important educator(s) your child may ever have.’ Although that article was about preschool teacher salary, we can see locally the impact our preschool teachers have on our students, especially those with special needs,” Thompson said. “Early intervention and the power of peer modeling — kids learning from watching and listening to each other — is especially impactful at the preschool level. A student might be identified with a special need going into preschool, but might leave preschool after a year or two needing fewer services or none at all.”