Growing WCSD preschool program expands to Pointview Elementary
The second site of Westerville City Schools’ federally-mandated preschool program for children with special needs offers a glimpse of the lessons and exercises that teachers and staff are using to help children of all abilities develop and grow.
At the start of Heather Hiles’ PM class, students warm up their bodies — and gross motor skills — with standing and seated stretches. Then they moved onto practicing their speech by introducing themselves to their peers and welcoming them in song.
In the next classroom over, students in Katie Summers’ class are working on their fine motor skills, practicing their grips on pens and tracing lines or connecting the dots on plastic worksheets.
Meanwhile, at the end of the hall in Sarah Ireton’s room, a display screen features the stations of the day — Craft, Bins and Book, and Play — with a countdown clock keeping track of their time and pictures of each student under their assigned stations. Many of these preschool students don’t recognize their names yet, so pictures help them know who they are with and what they are doing. By rotating in different stations, students are learning how to follow a schedule and practicing a skill that will prepare them for elementary school.
All three classes are housed at Pointview Elementary, where available space has given room to the growing enrollment in the district’s preschool program.
The program, where students with disabilities learn side-by-side with typically developing peers who attend on a tuition basis, currently serves 325 students — a number that has steadily risen over the past six years. Last school year the program added three classes, two of which were moved to Pointview for the start of the second semester, to accommodate the influx of students. Based on enrollment trends, another wave of students is anticipated through January.
The level of support needed for many of those students is higher than it used to be, explained Preschool Director Suzanne Kile.
Students are entering school with significant communication needs; some are nonverbal, she said. Several are in need of physical therapy to develop their gross motor skills or occupational therapy for their fine motor abilities. Many students have underdeveloped sensory systems where they need assistance using their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them. They also need support learning how to regulate their emotions and behaviors — another skill critical for their success as they grow older.
“We want to make a smooth transition to kindergarten,” Kile said. “For most of the kids we serve, they will be eligible to receive support in kindergarten and possibly all the way through.”
National studies show that there are significantly more children eligible but are not receiving services for early intervention and early childhood special education.
The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers Graduate School for Education conducted a state-by-state comparison of services “critical to improve learning and development” for children with special needs aged 3 to 5.
The study found that Ohio only served 2.6% of children eligible for early intervention and early childhood special education, which is lower than the national rate of 3.7%. The study attributes some of the access issues to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the number of children receiving early intervention dropping by 14,000 children nationally between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020.
Public schools are required under federal law to educate children with disabilities beginning on their third birthday. The district’s preschool program helps all students progress in all areas with an emphasis on social foundations; language and literacy; math; and physical well-being and motor development.
The preschool staff — which includes teachers, aids, therapists and other support staff — provides different levels of support for students with disabilities based on their needs, from an integrated class where they work alongside typically developing peers to a smaller class setting for more personalized attention to help with their communication skills. In some cases, preschool staff work with students once a week in a community preschool setting such as a Head Start program.
“Our students learn differently and we need to teach differently,” Kile said. “We need the environment and the instruction structured differently for them to be able to do that.”
- Preschool Program at the Early Learning Center
- Westerville City Schools