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Preschool program gives children jump start

By Bryan Marshall

Pam Mullins saw the benefits of the Preschool / Head Start programs in Grant County up close.
Not long after she enrolled her daughter in preschool, Mullins became involved in teaching.
She now has 16 years of experience in Preschool / Head Start and her daughter is studying to follow in her footsteps at Northern Kentucky University.
“I have a couple children here who are seniors now,” said Mullins, Williamstown Elementary Preschool / Head Start teacher. “They come down and see me and tell me to make sure I come to graduation. I tell them I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
The Preschool and Head Start programs serve more than 200 children in the Williamstown and Grant County school districts.
The program, which does have some eligibility guidelines, operates within each elementary school in the county and students attend based on their physical address. Students transition to the same school for kindergarten.
There are morning and afternoon classes that meet for three and a half hours Monday through Thursday and about one Friday a month.
In class, Mullins said students are taught about social skills, sharing, dealing with emotions, colors, shapes, counting and life experiences.
The biggest challenge for the students is getting used to the structure of a classroom setting and staying engaged, said Mullins.
Teachers and assistants log student observations daily to determine growth and access needs of each child.
“You get them when they are first learning,” Mullins said. “Everything is so exciting and new to them. Several years back, so many people would say that we were just like a daycare. They just need to come in the room and watch. Teacher qualifications are a lot higher. We have curriculum. We have goals we have to meet. We have guidelines we go by. It’s school. It’s not all play. The play that we do is pretty much all educational.”
The majority of students in the program are 4-year-olds, but many 3-year-olds are served due to developmental delay or disability, said Molly McComas, Preschool / Head Start director and dean of students.
Head Start was initiated by Lady Bird Johnson to help families in poverty have meaningful experiences prior to the academic enrollment into school.
“Head Start is a federal program and Preschool is a state program,” McComas said. “While both are academically based, social / emotional emphasis is more present in Head Start. It focuses on building relationships and the mental health component for healthy children and families.”
Parent Cathy Tutorow was happy with the experiences her two sons  — kindergartner Dakota and third grader Jimmy — had attending Preschool / Head Start at Crittenden-Mount Zion Elementary.
“For me, it was more monetary,” she said about why she enrolled the children. “We met income guidelines that allowed them to go for no cost, which was beneficial. I would not have been able to afford preschool. The resources that they have are invaluable. I had some speech concerns with both of the kids. Those were put to rest because they were able to test them.”
Tutorow said she appreciated the opportunity to give her sons a jump start in education.
“I teach them as much as I can at home, but sometimes I think they pick things up easier in a group setting,” she said. “They learn to interact with the other children, which I think is important.”
Dakota was  eager to enter the program after watching three older siblings go to school.
Although Jimmy was a little more apprehensive, the lessons he learned benefited him when he entered kindergarten, said Tutorow.
“He was already used to being there,” she said. “He got to eat lunch in the same cafeteria in preschool. He already knew how to be quiet in the hallway and most of the CMZ rules.”
Eight full-time lead teachers, eight full-time instructional assistants, three classroom assistants, three full-time bus drivers, three full-time bus monitors, five part-time bus drivers, five part-time bus monitors and substitutes are employed in the program.
The administrative staff consists of the director, program manager, program coordinator, lead family service worker, administrative assistant, one full-time speech pathologist/education coordinator and the manager of mental health.
The program also contracts services with an occupational therapist and two physical therapists.
McComas said that the program’s main focus is school readiness and promoting active family involvement for their child’s education.
“We want children to love school and families to receive the extra support and services that may be necessary for their child to have a successful and grounded transition to kindergarten,” she said. “The program is mandated to serve not only the whole child, but also identify family needs and barriers.”
Four parent/teacher conferences are held with at least two of them being in-home family visits.
The classroom staff also plans opportunities for students and families to work on activities at home that are developmentally appropriate, McComas said.
Parent committee meetings are held regularly to discuss ideas for the classroom environment and concerns that some families may struggle with or want additional resources for.
“Our administrative staff plans workshops that offer great educational value to families from budgeting to staying fit and healthy,” McComas said. “We connect families with community partners to encourage them to build capacity within themselves, go back to school, buy a home or other resources that they may be unaware of at the time.”
The Preschool / Head Start experience ultimately prepares the students to enter kindergarten and continue to be successful in their educational career, said Mullins.
“One of the biggest things I hear from parents is how much stuff that was learned in kindergarten a couple years back is coming into preschool,” she said. “Kindergarten is more like first grade compared to five years ago. The kindergarten teachers are great. They let us into their rooms and let the 5-year-olds see what they’re preparing for. We’re kind of a team. It works really well.”
Open registration for Preschool / Head Start will be held April 5-7, April 19-21 and May 3-5 at the Preschool / Head Start office behind the Williamstown Early Learning Center.
Universal screenings and return student screenings will be held July 11-15, followed by screenings one day a month after school starts.
For more information, call 824-4174.