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Preparing kids for kindergarten at St. James

There is a new movement in education circles around kindergarten readiness. Regionally, United Way of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum Counties is picking up the torch in its partnerships, reflected locally with St. James Family Center in Cathlamet and Wahkiakum School District.

"Early childhood is a significant time in a child's life, and studies show that when children show up to kindergarten with the skills they need, they are more likely to do well in kindergarten and throughout their educational career," UW Executive Director Sabrina Kochprapha wrote in an email. "By filling gaps and supporting children during this critical time, we can help increase opportunities for children and break the cycle of poverty."

Some of the ideas behind kindergarten readiness are not necessarily new for Beth Hansen, Director at St. James Family Center, or the dedicated teachers that work there, however, the enthusiasm for the program and the more dynamic partnership with United Way and WSD, born out of a social isolation created by the pandemic, is absolutely welcome.

While United Way has long supported SJFC through grants, and will continue to raise money as they always do, they are using this special focus on kindergarten readiness to do several things, including the organization of a Kindergarten Readiness Advisory Board, made up of about 30 or so local experts. The goal of all this? To ensure that at least 80 percent of local children are prepared for kindergarten by 2032.

"There are a lot of services and awesome programs here but not everyone knows about them, Kochprapha said. "We want to proactively drive change. We want to make sure we are talking to each other and to figure out how we can better serve each other and serve families. How do we create solutions or collaborate to fill gaps?"

St. James is the early childhood hub in Wahkiakum County. They have long offered childcare for kids aged two and half to 12 as well as preschool, adding other programs over the years, from providing support to families with newborns to age five through home visits, and developing a community sexual assault program, a domestic violence program, and overseeing a shelter for women and children.

Preschool and early childhood education has evolved over time. Along with constant research being done, Hansen said, it is now referred to as early care in education.

"Kindergarten readiness is something that we've been working on for years," Hansen said. "But it's involved and become much more intentional In early learning. We have the ECEAP program, which is the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program and that is an income qualifying preschool and we have room for 24 children. We are full this year."

There is also a blended program which includes children whose families pay fees because they don't qualify for ECEAP.

This year, the program is back to full time, after a long period of adjustment during the pandemic, and all the students are in the same quality classroom, Hansen said, and will be entering the same school district, prepared.

"Our teachers are so well trained with professional development qualifications, working with those kids, assessing them, making sure they are ready to walk into that kindergarten room, ready," Hansen said.

Three teachers, Johannah Commeau, Tiffany Stewart-Thomas, and Vicki Willette provided a clear picture of what these youngsters are learning in their classroom in preparation for kindergarten.

First of all, these kids, not yet five, know their alphabet, can count to 20, and even write their name. And all the while they are learning social and emotional skills that will benefit them in years to come.

"With our curriculum that we teach, some of the questions that we have to ask the kids are kind of crazy for our age group, but these kids can actually add and subtract within 10. They are pretty advanced in my opinion," Willette said.

Commeau works in word problems every chance she gets, which is one area where she sees some of the kids struggling.

"They can whip them out, within one to 10. It's pretty awesome to watch them do it," Commeau said.

She gave an example. Commeau will say to students, "Hold up five friends on your hand," and watch as each of them shows five fingers. "Well, two friends went home," she'll say, and watch the kids take two friends, or fingers, away. She'll ask how many friends they have left before telling them that one of the friends came back.

Even she's amazed when she sees some of them doing the calculations in their heads.

According to Willette, in this year's class there are three readers, and one is exceptional.

These days, along with the usual reading, writing, and arithmetic, teachers are focusing on the kind of growth that could help the kids with their emotions and interactions for the rest of their lives.

One thing they are using is a curriculum called Second Steps. The kids are shown a picture, and will problem solve the situation they see, describing what they would do if it happened to them.

An even bigger tool that teachers are using is emotional reflection, Stewart-Thomas said, which might be as simple as saying to a child, "I see that that is frustrating for you" or "You look like you are angry or you're sad," or "Oh you are happy!" "And I see that you are sharing."

"We're just trying to create some mirrors so they can begin to name or own what is happening in their body or that big feeling that's coming," she said. "Using opportunities to give definition to what they are experiencing, so they can begin to name their feelings or ask for help. I think that promotes confidence and a sense of self."

They are finding that these kind of things help as the kids head to kindergarten and walk into new rooms with new people and new experiences, she explained.

"We've just had the pleasure of really seeing growth from the first day to now, of use of language, of being able to advocate for their needs," Stewart-Thomas said.

The three combined their thoughts to describe some of the benefits.

"It helps them to communicate with their peers, using their words instead of their hands," Commeau started.

"And how to mix with other kids that is healthy and fair," Stewart-Thomas added.

"For them to try to work it out with each other instead of coming to a teacher," Willette finished.

It's all very necessary as they transition from three and a half hours with three teachers at SJFC to kindergarten for six hours in an environment where there is traditionally less support.

"They are used to be embraced with all this support, and not that the school district doesn't do that, it's just different," Hansen said.

And speaking of support, SJFC is simultaneously preparing families for the transition as well.

The teachers have had several hours of training, education, and on the job experience and are clearly passionate and informed about what they are doing.

Having a foundation of early childhood education and a philosophy of positive guidance for a child, as well as the notion of mistaken behavior instead of misbehavior, has been really helpful for Stewart-Thomas.

"So many things are new to them, and looking at children through that lens, with a positive perspective on mistaken behavior, our role is to help create strategies that will help that child long term," she said.

She also spoke of the importance of love for children, of remaining patient and showing love and encouragement, in order to give the kids a foundation that will help them be successful as they move on.

"There is so much more research in early childhood education and how the brain works," Stewart-Thomas said. "I think people don't realize what is happening in their minds."

"It's really profound," she continued. "There is a lot more research around complex needs, which is really a big deal, mixed within the pandemic. We had children that were really behind in using their language skills due to not being able to socialize when they were two or three. How do we support those kids with those extra needs to be able to be in those peer settings and gain what they need to gain in their own trajectory of learning and development?"

The goal at SJFC is to get everyone to that "starting line of kindergarten," Stewart-Thomas said, with some skills that are individualized, but also shared as a community.

Finally, because of their training, and the amount of time they spend with the kids at such an early age, the teachers are able to provide early intervention when they recognize children who need extra support for a variety of issues, which even includes vision and hearing screening.

"Early intervention is key," Stewart-Thomas said.

Hansen talked about their partnership with Wahkiakum School District.

"One of the huge benefits we have in Wahkiakum is that we have a great relationship with the Wahkiakum School District," she said. "With kindergarten transition and communication. Right now we are in kindergarten transition with our four year olds. They've done registration night, and they will go up there to visit the kindergarten. We share assessment information so teachers have information about the children before they come in, so they can better serve them."

"That's not the case in all school districts, we are lucky to have that," she said. "That's been ongoing for years, but it's even stronger now. We're all coming out of the pandemic trying to collaborate and partner more so we can have those kids be successful, just because those years were so difficult on families."

"When you see the progress from the beginning of the year to the end, it is amazing," Hansen said, her thoughts returning to the teachers and children in theirs classroom at SJFC. "They have done amazing things with these kids. I also think their love of children makes all the difference in the world."

"We are more than just the daycare on the hill," Hansen added.


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