Elwood preschoolers get head start on education

ELWOOD – Temporary aid Ashley King helped Quincy Cooper and Noah Cannon navigate the rounded-end scissors and glue sticks as they cut red construction paper to make a fire truck like the one on the cover of the book “I Love Trucks.”

Theirs was one of several projects created by preschoolers at various levels at the Fran and Ernie Reichart Early Learning Center at Elwood Elementary School for Fire Prevention Week.

Quincy and Noah were among about 18 4-year-olds engaged in a variety of activities, including reading and imaginative play in Samantha Pearse’s classroom.

Traditionally serving students in grades kindergarten through 2, Elwood Elementary already has gotten a jump on the anticipated expansion of Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K program with the early learning center. Madison County was one of 15 counties chosen to participate in the expansion of the program over the next year.

“We really thought ahead three years ago, so we got our licensure so we were ready for the pre-K that’s up and coming,” said the school’s principal, Bev Groover. “This gives our students continuity throughout their school years from age 16 months through high school.”

She said since about 2010, Elwood Elementary has offered a preschool program that as of this school year serves nearly 200 children in 11 classrooms, with two more that can be filled. The program provides parents a safe, quality program from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for children ages 16 months to 5 years.

The program operates year round, with the exceptions of five official holidays. Parents can take advantage of full-day and part-day and full-week and part-week options.

Cost for the program depends on the age of the child. For instance, the youngest children can attend for $20 a day, and 4-year-olds can attend for $12 a day. Those wanting their children to attend for half a day pay as little as $2 per day.

“That’s because we want to see all 4-year-olds,” Groover said. “We’re trying to make it so everybody has an ability to be here some.”

Even without the state’s expansion, Elwood Community Schools had planned to expand its own program built mostly with the assistance of public and private grants, Groover said.

“You can tell there’s a need in the community, or we would not be as full as we are,” she said.

Named a Promising Practice School by former Indiana State Superintendent for Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, the Fran and Ernie Reichart Early Learning Center is becoming a model for the state because of its early learning interventions.

One of the challenges of expanding the program, Groover said, is making sure there were enough preschool-sized restrooms. In many instances, classroom restrooms for the younger grades had been converted to closets and had to be renovated back into restrooms, she said.

“We moved everyone in the building to accommodate this. The biggest thing is to have enough restrooms,” she said.

Groover said she’s already starting to see the advantages of the early learning program as the students enter kindergarten.

“It has been remarkable, because we do work on social and emotional skills and academics,” she said. “We can really see they are gaining those social skills they didn’t have before.”

In addition, the incoming kindergartners already are at the national norm on standardized tests.

“We’re starting to see a difference in our NWEA scores in reading,” she said.

Groover said she hopes the program eventually also will benefit the educations of students at the Hinds Career Center. Those interested in careers in early childhood education may be allowed to assist in the classrooms.

Shari Vehikite’s daughter, Violet, attended the Fran and Ernie Reichart Early Learning Center last year as a 4-year-old and now attends kindergarten at Elwood Elementary School. Attending the center helped her daughter overcome her extreme shyness and prepare her for the academic rigor of the higher grade levels, she said.

“She was really clingy with me before because I was a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “It would have been much more difficult all the way around had she not been to the preschool here.”

“It helps them feel comfortable here. They’re familiar with the rules and familiar with the staff,” she said.

Vehikite, who started work as the school nurse this year at Elwood Elementary, said she thought having so many more children in the school would equate to a lot more work. But she said that hasn’t been the case.

In addition, Vehikite said, the school is great for special needs children who already start at a disadvantage.

“A lot of those problems are taken care of before they start kindergarten, which is huge,” she said.

On My Way Pre-K

Indiana’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning is accepting applications for grants starting in January from families seeking high-quality, prekindergarten education through the On My Way Pre-K program.

Madison County is one of 10 expansion counties participating in the program, which started as a pilot with five counties. Another five expansion counties are expected to start their programs for the 2018-19 school year.

Eligible families must meet the following requirements:

• The family must have an income below 127 percent of the federal poverty level.

• Parents or guardians must work and/or attend school or an accredited or certified education/training program.

• The child must have turned 4 years old by Aug. 1, 2017, and be starting kindergarten in August 2018.

Families that receive the grants will have their choice of several approved providers.

For more information, visit www.OnMyWayPreK.org.

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