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Sat, Nov 01, 2014 03:34 AM
Issue of October 29, 2014
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Kelly Schulz is surrounded by students as she conducts a preschool class at New Middletown Elementary School. Photo by Ross Schulz

Preschool provides jump start for students

May 28, 2014 | 09:48 AM

A preschool education program that ran half of a year at New Middletown Elementary School is showing promise.

Principal Pat Gilliland said 14 students are taking part in the program, with 11 falling into the prioritized area of free or reduced lunch category, and three others included for academic or social reasons.

"We are immersing kids in education who might otherwise not have that opportunity," she said. "Academically, they've already come a long way. We are teaching preschoolers to learn to read. Preschoolers!

"Socially, we're teaching 4-year-olds to work and play together," she continued. "Most of these children could start kindergarten tomorrow and be successful. Obviously, the parents have been pretty grateful."

New Middletown Elementary was chosen for the program due to student poverty level at the school and because it had the space to place the students.

Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between the poverty level of students and their educational success.

Steve Gilliland, Harrison County Community Foundation president and CEO (and Pat Gilliland's husband) presented the program, which HCCF helped fund, last November to the Harrison County Board of Commissioners.

Gilliland said studies demonstrate 85 percent of a child's brain growth happens by age 5. He said there's a trend, no matter the school or community it is in, that can be tracked like clockwork: those students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which typically are those who do not receive sufficient education before public school (kindergarten), will often score 10 to 20 percent lower than their peers on ISTEP testing.

The Foundation's Jump Start Early Education Initiative provides up to $10,000 per classroom for equipment and up to $120 per student for all-day preschool for 36 weeks ($4,300 per year per child).

Children eligible to enroll in kindergarten the following year can participate, but the Foundation will only fund those at-risk students identified by the schools.

Pat Gilliland said that, by the second day of school, the preschoolers were taking their trays and emptying them where they needed to. They had some role models — the older students — and the preschoolers picked up on lunchroom protocol. Gilliland said the older students love having the preschoolers around.

"It's really like a big brother-big sister atmosphere here," she said.

The preschool teacher at NMES, Kelly Schulz, said the students are excited to learn new things every day.

"I knew going into the program that I would have students who had previously attended preschool and some who had never attended any type of structured daily routine," Schulz said. "I knew I'd have my work cut out for me, but I was excited to start.

"Throughout the semester, the children have greatly exceeded my expectations," she said. "They were only in preschool for five months and have shown growth in both academics and behavior."

Schulz said teaching preschool children is her passion. She's worked with preschool-aged children for five years.

"They show such a passion for learning; they are excited to be at school every day," Schulz said. "When teaching preschool, they are not the only ones who learn. I learn from them every day. They make me want to come to my job every day. They show me that education can be fun and rewarding. There is no better feeling than when their little minds begin to learn and there's that 'ah-ha' moment where the lightbulb finally turns on and they understand what I am teaching. They get so excited, and it makes each day so rewarding.

Schulz believes the preschool provides the children a head start to the education they deserve.

"It gives them a head start preparing for kindergarten and years to come," she said. "Being in preschool not only increases their educational learning, but social learning as well. They learn and grow so much from their peers and adults who shape their lives. They are just beginning their educational journey, which prepares them for their future."

"She's amazing," Pat Gilliland said of Schulz. "She's so nurturing and enthusiastic. She was made to be a preschool teacher. I couldn't have asked for anyone better."

Though the program is still in its infancy, Pat Gilliland said it couldn't have gone much better. The only tweak that she can see making is in the area of scheduling classes. She said since the program started midstream, it wasn't conducive to proper scheduling of classes like music and art. The students still took those classes but on an adjusted schedule.

A typical day starts with about half of the students eating breakfast at the school while the other half socialize. A majority of the morning is spent on language arts, then the students take a break and go to the gym for a recess before lunch. After lunch is storytime, where the lights are dimmed and the kids rest. They don't have to go to sleep — some do — but they have to be quiet. Then they do math and after that it's time to go home.

Pat Gilliland said she's enjoyed the experience so far.

"I walked in a class during rest time and the children have their blankets and stuff and the lights are low, and I look down and there's a boy with his shoes and socks off, and it warmed my heart because I know that he feels like he's in a safe environment," she said. "We are thrilled to be able to do this. There is such a need. I know Steve is, but as a whole the Harrison County Community Foundation is very excited. This is something that is long range and will impact the community.

"It's important that we reach these kids at this young age, an age where they are such sponges and soak so much up," Gilliland said.

"Our vision here is that every child should be provided the tools to be successful and to have a level playing field for everyone when it comes to learning, regardless of economic status."

Twitter: @_alanstewart

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