LAGRANGE — Benjamin Lamb tucked his little brown-haired head close to the red table and colored with a look of concentration on his face.
He picked up the yellow crayon, swiped it across a paper marked with six faces and put it down. He did the same with the orange, red and green crayons. Finally, when he thought his artwork had enough color, he looked up and exclaimed, “Rainbow!”
Julie Wilson just smiled.
“Good job, Ben,” she said.
Not missing a beat, the 5-year-old boy went back to coloring and Wilson, who says she is living her dream life with a dream job, began telling a funny story of how she grabbed a jar of mayonnaise from her refrigerator. The lid was not on tightly and the jar slipped from her hands, landed on the floor and splattered the sandwich spread all over her kitchen.
“And, who do you think left the lid off and had to clean up that mess?” Wilson said.
“Probably your cat,” said Ben in a kids-say-the-darndest-things sort of way.
Yup, this is preschool — the place where a 5-year-old boy can color an image of a face with every color in the rainbow and give human powers to a cat.
But preschool is not to be mistaken for baby sitting.
The primary colors — red, yellow and blue — are all over the walls, along with numbers, letters, shapes and animals. A room across the hall designed for play is full of blocks, puzzles and dolls.
Preschool combines playing and learning designed to let tiny brains soak up the foundations needed for a long educational career. It has existed in its most basic form for years, but when President Barack Obama called for an expansion of preschool programs across the country in his 2013 State of the Union address and lawmakers began thinking of how it could work in their states, preschool became the buzzword of a nation struggling to improve education by any means necessary.
Gov. John Kasich and Ohio legislators started down the path months ago.
That was when the General Assembly increased the state’s investment in high-quality early-learning preschool programs with an additional $10 million.
“We know in Ohio that if children are behind when they start school, it’s more likely they will struggle academically in later grades,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard A. Ross said in October when Kasich signed the funding bill into law. “It’s critical that we prepare every young child for success in school.”
In Lorain County, where — according to the U.S. census — 5.7 percent of the 301,000 persons living here were under 5 years of age in 2012, preschool has long been more than just the few years kids spend playing before real school.
“It’s the silver bullet,” said Elyria Schools Superintendent Paul Rigda. “In all the years I have been in education and with everything that has changed, early childhood education has not. It is the difference-maker in kids.”
According to a database of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, there are 31 preschool programs in the county. The list does not include private programs and others that do not seek state funding.
Prepping for big school
Nine years ago, the LaGrange Co-op Preschool was very close to closing. It had lost its teacher and parents were contemplating looking elsewhere for their children.
Then, Wilson, a soft-spoken but firm woman with an associate degree from Lorain County Community College College, heard about an opening for a teacher. She interviewed, took the job and made the program more to her liking — structured, curriculum-based and kid-centered.
Now, the school’s three classes fill up before the school year starts and she needs to do little promotion to get the classes filled.
“The reason why I’m full is because of word of mouth,” Wilson, both the director and lay teacher of the very hands-on program inside the LaGrange United Methodist Church.
Her students were just feet away enjoying a quick snack from home.
“People are telling their friends to get their kids into my program. That’s very flattering to me,” she said.
Jennifer Dodge, executive director of the Lorain County Child Care Resource Center, said choosing a good program today can save parents a lot of headache in years to come.
In Ohio, state standards are becoming more rigorous, and none is more talked about than the Third Grade Guarantee, a state mandate calling for all students to be proficient in reading by the third grade or face being held back a grade. This is the first year the Third Grade Guarantee is being applied, and parents are now scrambling to help their struggling students.
“It’s a harsh reality when you are being told when your child is in third grade that they are not proficient enough,” Dodge said. “Affected parents want to know what they can do and there are at-home strategies that can help. But we know if we can hit families when their children are very young, we can have a bigger impact. It’s better than waiting until they are already in school and struggling.”
The 14 children in Wilson’s class Friday were there for just 2½ hours, but every second counted. There was no time for temper tantrums, meltdowns or squabbles over sharing. A flick of the light switch was all that was needed to move the 4- and 5-year-olds from one task to the other.
“It’s funny because I get parents who think, ‘It’s just preschool,’ but we are teaching them social, cognitive, behavioral and educational skills,” she said. “I’m preparing these children to go into the big school so they are not so overwhelmed.”
It’s the kind of approach a seasoned educator like Rigda can appreciate. Rigda is a visionary of sorts when it comes to early childhood education.
Elyria Schools was the first district in the county to mandate full-day kindergarten. A half-day or half-week option just doesn’t exist for parents in the district of more than 7,000 students.
But reaching kids at the age of 5 wasn’t enough. Rigda wanted to get to them even younger.
“When you push preschool, people like to say, ‘The kids are so young,’ ‘They need their naps,’ ‘They’re not ready for that much work,’ but they are wrong. These kids are more than ready,” he said. “Preschool used to be for wealthier parents who had the money to put their children in church-based programs. Then, we started to do more research on why those were our gifted kids, our kids with the highest test scores. What we saw was they weren’t so much gifted as they just started earlier and everyone else was catching up to them.”
Ready for more
The homework, the rigor, the new math that stumps even those parents with degrees in engineering — the school lessons of today are nothing like the lessons of yesteryear.
Students are expected to know more and to know it sooner. That first year of formal school known as kindergarten is no different.
How do you prepare students for the world of academia?
Michele Henes, an associate professor of education and coordinator of the children’s learning program at Lorain County Community College, said it starts with more school.
“What kids are doing in preschool today are the kindergarten standards of five or 10 years ago,” she said. “The same can be said for first grade and kindergarten. Children are now expected to be able to write a complete sentence by the middle of kindergarten and that was expected in first grade years ago.”
But research is proving that the youngest brains can take on more, said Henes, who is also the co-chair of the REACHigher Council started in 2007 to look at the entire spectrum of learning in Lorain County from preschool until the end of college.
“The birth-to-5 period is the most rapid period for development,” Henes said. “To maximize it, a child need access to a lot of different things and that includes learning how to make connections, developing language skills, prewriting and math skills, cognitive skills — you know, name it. That is the time kids learn what they need to spend 10 to 15 years more in group education settings.’’
There is a common misconception that preschool is child care or day care, often because many day cares have a preschool component. But Henes said she has found those programs are doing things the whole time the child is there, even if more time for free play is incorporated into the day.
While educators once didn’t think much about preschool, they are now taking notice with an eye toward embracing why it’s important.
“Those kids who are not exposed to quality preschool are playing catch up from the very beginning,” she said.
To further the notion in Elyria that preschool counts, Rigda tasked educators in the district to do something thought by many to be highly unusual. He told curriculum specialists to reach out to the preschool programs and help craft education plans that better prepare children for kindergarten.
“Ready, Set, Go — to Kindergarten” is the district’s attempt at ensuring that every student enrolled in preschool in Elyria has the same basic education. It doesn’t matter if the place is a faith-based center or a private preschool, the goal is kindergarten readiness.
The innovative approach caught the eye of state Sen. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, who sponsored an amendment to the biennial budget to fund the program.
“We call them our children even before they come to our district, so we want to make sure they have the best possible experiences before they get to us, so when they get to kindergarten, they are ready,” said Elyria’s Director of Academic Services Ann Schloss.
Elyria Schools’ involvement is to provide professional development, work with centers and home providers with curriculum on key preschool standards and hold workshops — sometimes 90 or more teachers have attended in the past — where sample lessons are taught to teachers. Additionally, preschool teachers have an opportunity to visit kindergarten classrooms and work with the district’s teachers on transition plans.
There are no plans to expand the program beyond Elyria. But part of the requirement for state funding was data collection to quantify if it could work and be duplicated.