06/29/09 — More at Four program offers building blocks for learning

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More at Four program offers building blocks for learning

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 29, 2009 1:46 PM

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Teacher Autumn Scott, right, works on colors and building blocks with 4-year-old Trinita Lane, left and 5-year-old Faith Rodgers, center, as 5-year=old Dacari Miller plays with a toy truck in the background.

More at Four, the kindergarten readiness program introduced in 2001, needs more funding rather than less, local officials and educators say.

And yet as the House budget nears completion, educators are collectively holding their breath that programs like the kindergarten-preparation classrooms will be able to remain intact and keep pace with the expanding needs.

In Wayne County, one of the pilot counties when the program was launched, More at Four started with 54 slots. Today it has 648.

"Along with Head Start, we're serving over half of the 4-year-olds in Wayne County," said Valerie Wallace, early care and education director with Partnership for Children of Wayne County.

The program targets 4-year-olds with certain criteria, such as chronic health concerns, language barriers and children requiring an individual education plan. Military children have also been added to the list, at-risk because of parents being deployed or transient. Income, of course, is also a factor.

"The priority is children that are unserved, have never been in any kind of child care setting," Ms. Wallace said.

There are 39 More at Four classrooms around the county -- in schools, child care facilities and Head Start, with no more than 18 in a class. A committee locates convenient sites. Since the need is growing, though, that is not always possible, Ms. Wallace said.

"We still don't have one out in the Grantham area," she said. "Spring Creek always has a high number, even though we have two classrooms in that area, rural areas as well. We definitely see the need increasing."

The six-hour weekday program is set up like a typical pre-K classroom, said Cristy Barnes, program specialist.

"The children pretty much go through a day of breakfast, lunch and possibly a snack. All of the classrooms have centers set up in them," she said. "There's a house area, block area and science and math area."

"There's lots of conversation, lots of language, literacy, circle time, finger play, story-telling," Ms. Wallace said.

If academics are the foundation, social interaction would be the glue that holds it all together, officials say.

Susan Wiser is a More at Four teacher at Meadow Lane Elementary, where the program has been for two years.

"It's not just play. A lot of people think that we babysit," she said. "It's really intentional teaching, trying to reach every single child, meet their needs."

The growth she has seen is "tremendous," she said. "Some of these kids have never had to share toys before. Their social skills, emotional skills, those kinds of things are just as important as getting the child ready for kindergarten."

The structure of the program lets children be in the classroom, learn a routine, follow directions, as well as be exposed to the array of kindergarten readiness skills they will need, Mrs. Wiser said.

"Everything is hands-on that we do, geared in learning centers through play," she said. "We intentionally put things in those areas to work on the skills that the children need. They're all at different levels. ... It just gives them that exposure to the school."

As part of the early childhood rating scale that goes toward licensing, More at Four sites are monitored both locally and by the state -- on everything from interaction with children and activities, to sanitation and nutrition.

Its addition in the county has also resulted in a rise in the star ratings of child care facilties, Ms. Wallace noted.

"It's challenged other facilities to strive for higher star (ratings)," she said.

Teachers also conduct regular assessments, make home visits and gather information to share with parents. As a result, children in More at Four have gone on to perform better when they reach elementary school, Ms. Wallace said.

Charles Ivey, principal at Spring Creek Elementary School, said it would be a "tremendous loss" to the school system if funding to More at Four were cut.

"For these kids, particularly the low-income kids starting in a school setting, it has been very beneficial, especially for the English-as-a-second-language kids," he said. "That has given them a big boost as they enter kindergarten.

"We have seen firsthand the benefits of a kid that has had at least one year of preschool experience compared to the one that comes directly from home to kindergarten -- the awareness of books, print materials, the ability to interact in a school setting -- all these things are so helpful to a student just starting out," he said.

With much discussion about graduation rates often centered around high schools, efforts should actually start much earlier to ward off the problem, Ivey said.

"The sooner you can raise a solid foundation, the better you are," he said. "It's sad to say (but) unless you can intervene early, and I mean 4 and 5 and 6 years old, you can identify students who are -- I don't say they will drop out, but they are prone to dropping out -- they drop out emotionally and mentally before they drop out physically."

Ms. Barnes agrees.

"If the teachers give the children the passion at the beginning, it continues on throughout their journey in school," she said. "Hopefully, they'll graduate and go on to further education."

Spring Creek currently has one More at Four classroom, but Ivey said he could probably use three.

"If the space and funds were available, there's that much need," he said. "Instead of reducing, I would be much more in favor of expanding."

Wendy Hooks, principal at Brogden Primary School, shares that opinion. With only one More at Four class, she said it's "always at max" and she fields many calls about the program.

"I'm sure every school has its own unique benefits," she said. "We're in such a rural area it brings the benefits to the children who might not be in an educational setting. In our case, when they get to kindergarten they're already oriented with the school, with who we are, and they transition very well."

In such rural areas, she sees many cases of latchkey kids or children staying with grandparents or family members until they are ready for school.

Even in the childcare arena, educators extol the virtues of the preparatory program.

Bill Batts, director of Small World Child Care Center and Preschool, has worked with More at Four since the beginning, seeing it expand from one classroom to six.

More at Four has also provided accessibility for families that might not otherwise have such opportunities, while improving standards at other child care programs, Batts said.

"I believe that it's brought the quality overall up in the centers because they see they're having to compete with More at Four standards," he said. "And then the centers providing More at Four have to provide better quality."

The Partnership is already fortunate, Ms. Wallace said, to have relationships with the school system and programs like Head Start, while both Wayne Community College and Mount Olive College have produced a number of teachers for the More at Four program.

And despite ominous reports about budget cuts, which have included rumblings of possible program consolidations or changes, the Partnership is proceeding like it does before every school year.

"We're notifying parents of placements." Ms. Wallace said. "We have educated the public about what's going on in Raleigh, because they're the ones that can actually make the difference and tell their experiences to legislators."

They are even planning for an expansion until they hear otherwise. Ms. Wallace said she has requested additional slots for next year and would like to have another inclusive classroom for special needs children and possibly another regular classroom.

At this point, the office has processed more than 600 applications, and has been sending out letters of acceptance, Ms. Barnes said.

"We won't ever stop taking applications," Ms. Wallace added, encouraging parents to continue seeking what the program has to offer.

Children must be 4 years old by Aug. 31, she pointed out.

"Even if they think they may be over income, they still can apply," she said. "They may have other risk factors and be eligible."