Vincent preschool program is First Class

Published 10:26 am Thursday, May 14, 2009

As a group of 18 four- and five-year olds romped around Terri Howell’s classroom at Vincent Elementary School, Howell smiled and offered hugs to children left and right.

Howell, the school’s preschool teacher, owes her job to the First Class program, a state initiative that provides funds for schools to open preschools that students can attend for free. Vincent Elementary has a $45,000 grant to spread over the next four years.

“There’s a need for kids to go into a school setting, and not everybody can afford it,” Howell said. “The kids need the exposure. We had one little girl who was very quiet, very shy, and now she’s so social because she’s come out of her shell.”

Unlike many preschools, which dismiss students early in the day, Vincent Elementary’s preschool class stays in session from 7:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.

The students learn the basic skills they’ll need to succeed, working on reading comprehension, sounding out syllables and learning new vocabulary words. They get plenty of playtime and learning opportunities, as well as time to take a nap or just calm down from the day’s stimulation.

“We don’t necessarily teach them the ABCs,” Howell said. “I see our role as being facilitators of learning.”

Second-grade teacher Amy Martin, whose son, Griffin, is in the preschool program, said she’s seen a tremendous improvement for Griffin throughout the year.

“All of those kids already know the school’s expectations. They know the routine. They know how you walk in the hallway,” Martin said. “When they start kindergarten, they’re that much more ready to learn.”

Vincent Elementary principal Beverly Miller said she deeply supports preschool education and hopes her school can provide an example for others to follow.

“The challenge is making board members across the state aware of the success so they’ll buy in,” she said. “The concept behind preschool is that it’s a way of improving education. It lays the foundation for success.”

Miller already has a second preschool class slated to open this fall, although it won’t be subsidized by the First Class program. Rather, since Vincent Elementary is a Title I school and automatically federally funded, Miller will use some of the stimulus funds to pay for the second class. However, the second class will follow the guidelines and standards of the First Class program.

The class is already full for next year with 18 children, and a waiting list has been started. The impact is obvious in the community, since parents are required to contribute volunteer hours in exchange for their children’s place in the preschool program.

“It has really been a good year. It’s a new day for education with preschool,” Miller said.