Teacher Melinda Morgan’s morning preschool class is in high gear.
In the manner of accomplished early childhood teachers, she prompts students to think, share, and discover new learning in steady, enthusiastic give-and-take. Reading from an oversized storybook, Morgan keeps two students riveted. “What is happening outside in this story?” the teacher asks. “What color is that?” “How many leaves do you see?”
The model pre-school class is taking place at the end of a gravel driveway in the remote area of Clay County known as Fish Trap, named after the creek that empties into the Red Bird River. Over the past year, this classroom inside a converted mini-bus has delivered weekly pre-school time to families in a rural county where distance, availability and cost issues deter participation in early childhood programs.
Aboard Sunny — the name of the Family Readiness Bus that serves FishTrap and southern Clay County — children find books, songs, games, boards with letters and numbers, and stacked plastic containers filled with themed items to touch or ponder.
A trained early childhood teacher develops learning experiences around a school-readiness plan based on an initial assessment of each student. The bus parks for 75 minutes, with teacher-student interaction throughout and an emphasis on engaging both generations of the family in building skills.
A half hour into each stop, a trained “family navigation specialist,” who also doubles as bus driver, takes 30 minutes to meet separately with a parent or caregiver at the front of the bus. They discuss local services that might meet family needs, ways to help children develop and learn, and how things work at their local school and kindergarten. They might also talk about the monthly family fun nights that acquaint participants with their local elementary school, which families are expected to attend. For the closing 15 minutes, the family member works together with the teacher, who models ways that adults can encourage and extend learning throughout the week.
(An identical bus, known as Rosie, is based in Oneida and runs the remote roads across northern Clay.)
In this rural area, space limits the local elementary school to 16 preschool slots; other options might be an hour’s drive.
“The goal is to graduate and be college and career ready, but we take the long view — we know that starts at birth,” said Tennant Kirk, project director for the Readiness Bus and the head of early childhood programs for Partners in Education at Berea College. “We knew that a two-generation program would get the most impact.”
Kirk had learned of a similar bus outfitted for preschool house calls in Colorado. She said that a combination of lagging family well-being measures and challenging rural terrain made Clay County an obvious fit for the bus project. Partners in Education at Berea won three-year funding from the Kellogg Foundation, and connections with the local school system, library, and local organizations quickly bolstered the novel pre-k expansion.
Sharon Kaye Bowling of FishTrap learned about the program last year from the family navigator who now parks weekly at her house. She and her husband live with five grandchildren, including two pre-k students.
Bowling said that her granddaughters have learned colors, numbers, letters and more over the months. In addition, the program’s family support has helped her identify resources to make significant repairs at her house and also given her granddaughters opportunities to be eager and comfortable about attending Big Creek Elementary soon.
“I’ve told my friends about this. We love it. There wouldn’t be any options without it. I’m always busy with five children — cooking, cleaning, laundry — and I don’t have time to sit down with them like this,” Bowling said of the one-on-one attention for each child. “These girls will remember this always for the rest of their lives.”
Nadine Couch, principal at Big Creek Elementary, said that the bus has been an important resource for the school, which is limited to serving 16 three- and four-year-olds in its preschool because of space.
“This is a way to reach kids who would not normally get any early interventions,” Couch said. For many parents her school serves, attending an alternate preschool or Head Start center would mean a trip to Manchester, the county seat, that could take close to an hour, she added.
‘We show parents how to help their children in ways they can understand, which is not something that comes in the parent handbook,’ said Chris Morgan, who works with adult family members and doubles as bus driver.
Chris Morgan, coordinator of the Family Readiness Bus and a family navigator since the program started, said the program meets a wide range of needs. “The best thing is introducing families to ways they can help their children be school ready,” he said. (Chris is married to Melinda Morgan, a substitute teacher for the Family Readiness Bus and a full-time pre-k teacher at Big Creek Elementary. Chris drove and Melinda taught Bowling’s granddaughters on the day this story was reported.)
“Families learn their children’s capabilities, and they also see that it’s OK to get them to do higher-functioning tasks,” Chris Morgan said. “They get access to school activities and books — people take for granted that all kids have books in their home, but they don’t. We show parents how to help their children in ways they can understand, which is not something that comes in the parent handbook.”
Family navigators have also provided other essential help. Kirk reported that adults in the program have earned high-school equivalency degrees, stopped smoking and found jobs with the help of the program.
The bus delivered assistance during harsh winter snow and flooding that followed, delivering bottled water when pipes burst or portable heaters when propane tanks ran empty. “Our framework is about strengthening families,” Kirk said. “That means providing help in times of need. We serve the remote area.”
The challenges ahead include securing funding to make the buses sustainable after grant funding ends next year. In the meantime, stop by stop and week by week, children across Clay County are learning letters and practicing math basics while chanting about the hijinks of five little monkeys.
Sitting on the bus floor, Melinda Morgan shows her two students how the letter J has straight parts and curved parts. They trace the letter on a dry-erase board. From a plastic container, Morgan pulls out a jet. They talk about jackets, jellyfish, jeeps and more.
“It’s been great for the girls,” their grandmother said. “If they see the bus when we are out driving, they point at it and shout. They would love to be on it every day.”
ISSUES IN PRE-K ACCESS
Quality early learning is a proven way to build school readiness, a set of fundamental knowledge and individual skills that contribute to learning. Kentucky faces significant challenges. Currently, on state kindergarten screenings, about half of all students fall short of meeting readiness-to-learn standards based on adaptive, cognitive, motor, communication and social-emotional skills. Meanwhile, just over 40 percent of three- and four-year-olds participate in preschool programs. Some questions that might spark a local conversation:
\\\\\ How does your school system work with local child care and preschool providers to promote school readiness skills?
\\\\\ Do local early childhood education providers know about and use the state’s standards for early learning and quality measures for programs?
\\\\\ How closely are school-based pre-k programs aligned to delivering school readiness skills?
Some basic materials for explaining and understanding early childhood expectations: Kentucky has created a definition of school readiness, which provides the basis for the state’s early childhood standards.
In addition, the state has a five-star quality rating system for early care and early education programs. The rating system applies to all early learning programs that receive public funding, including child care center, Head Start, and public preschools.
\\\\\ The Readiness Bus program in Clay County is designed to help adults see how to promote learning experiences for their children.
At a 2016 Prichard Committee meeting, Ronald F. Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, showcased a community awareness initiative created in Boston to promote fundamental strategies to help young children build thinking skills.
The Boston Basics campaign includes a series of short videos on each strategy. Quality early learning is a major way to eliminate achievement gaps, Ferguson said. Disparities in learning “are clearly in place by a child’s second birthday, expanding as children get older,” he said. Find out more about Harvard’s Achievement Gap Institute.
\\\\\ Resources about early childhood issues in Kentucky are available from the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood, created in 2000 by then-Gov. Paul Patton.
Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.
IN OCTOBER \\\\\
NURTURING DEEPER LEARNING at Moore High School in Louisville
ABOUT CLAY COUNTY \\\\\
DISTRICT MEMBERSHIP: 3,128
RACE: 3% minority
INCOME: 78% eligible for free/reduced price meals
\\\\\ Overall achievement at schools in Clay County hovered near or below the state average, based on 2017 state test results. Reading results for all elementary students showed 54.8 percent of students performing proficient or better, compared to a state average of 54.3 percent. In middle school reading, 56.2 percent of students scored proficient or better compared to a 56.9 percent state average. In math, the Clay’s elementary and middle school proficiency-and-above percentages (just over 47 percent) were similarly close to the state average.
\\\\\ Based on 2017 ACT college-entrance exam scores, 41.5 percent of Clay County high school pupils met English benchmarks; 38.8 percent of students met the state’s math benchmark, while 43.2 percent met the reading benchmark. All of the results were below the state averages (55.8 percent, 43.7 percent, and 53.2 percent respectively.)
\\\\\ In 2017, 240 students took the state kindergarten readiness screening, with 33 percent meeting the readiness level. Comparing experiences before starting kindergarten, 72 students had not experienced any outside preschool, with 13 found to be kindergarten ready. Of 65 students who had participated in state-funded preschool, 38 reached the readiness level. Data showed that 90 students participated in Head Start, with 23 meeting the readiness mark.