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April 11, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, April 11, 2008

By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer

With increases in state funding tough to come by, the preschool programs that are flourishing in the commonwealth are spearheaded by passionate local leaders who find ways to make their programs work, a state official said Thursday.

"We wish we could offer more from the state level," said Kathy Glazer, director of the governor's Office of Early Childhood Development. But "it really is at the local level that these things happen," she said, referring to successful preschool initiatives.

Glazer spoke to about 50 school officials, Head Start directors and others interested in preschool education during a regional discussion on "Solving the Preschool Puzzle" held at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Created by Gov. Tim Kaine, the Office of Early Childhood Development works to expand access to and coordinate Virginia's system of early childhood development programs, which serve children from birth to age 5. As part of the discussion, Glazer recognized panelists who have implemented successful local programs.

Among the speakers were Carmala Shively, special education preschool coordinator for Henry County; Scott Kizner, Martinsville Schools superintendent; and Harry Davis, Martinsville's director of early childhood education.

Shively discussed the county's efforts this year to blend special education preschool students and typical preschool students in classrooms. Through a new program called Partners, school officials added 21 typically developing children to special education preschool classes in seven schools, with no more than four typical children per special ed room, Shively said.

By doing that, the school system did not have to hire additional teachers or add another classroom but could serve more students, she said.

In the new program, a special ed classroom could have students who range from those with severe and profound disabilities to those who are advanced for their age, Shively said.

"With a wide range of levels, you have to make sure you have resources in place" to serve all the students, she said. In the future, the schools would like to offer more training for teachers to prepare them to work with children of various abilities, she said.

Although the program has not been without bumps in the road - some special ed teachers struggled to handle "normal" energetic 4-year-olds, for example - overall it has been a success, Shively said.

More than anyone, the children have benefited, she said.

"The students have learned the most of all," she said. "They have openly accepted one another."?

As an illustration, she told the story of one of the blended classes that took a field trip to go bowling. When a special education student started crying, it took his teacher 20 minutes to calm him down, she said.

However, when he started crying again, one of the "partner" students - a typically developing child in the class - approached him, began rubbing his back and calmed him down within minutes.

Shively showed a photo of the two sitting on the floor of the bowling alley, one with his arm around the other.

The program, which is funded by grants, state and local funding, is in its early stages. Eventually, Shively said the school system hopes to offer only preschool, rather than separate tracks for typical and special ed children.

Kizner and Davis discussed Martinsville's decision in the last two years to add preschool for 3-year-olds to its existing program for 4-year-olds. The program for 3-year-olds receives no state or federal funding, but Kizner and Davis said it makes an amazing difference in the students' performance.

Tracking test scores has shown that children who go through the school's preschool programs are more successful by the time they enter third grade, Davis said.

Kizner also discussed the school's commitment to involving parents in the process through home visits and providing transportation for parents to attend meetings and be involved with their children's school.

In addition to the local panelists, speakers from Tazewell County, Roanoke and Harrisonburg discussed successes they have had with preschool initiatives.

Their stories ranged from blending Head Start and public school preschool programs to expanding services for students transitioning from preschool, whether it is private or public, to kindergarten.

Glazer encouraged those present to learn from one another's experiences and continue to lobby legislators for funding and support for pre-kindergarten initiatives.

Thursday's discussion was coordinated by Sheryl Agee, director of the United Way's Success By 6 program.

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