Western Pa. early-education programs strive to give tots successful start

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 9:19 p.m.

Kathy Jackson, a pre-kindergarten teacher in the East Allegheny School District, counted down backward from four, while eighteen children chanted Jacob Latino's name.

And then Jacob, 4, of North Versailles gave it his all.

He stooped and rolled a pumpkin with both hands. It traveled about four feet, then hit 10 empty water bottles set up like bowling pins, scattering them across on the floor.

Jacob's class erupted into cheers.

Bowling with pumpkins might be fun for these students, but the activity serves a greater purpose.

“By getting your hands and eyes coordinated, that helps your brain and opens it up for learning,” Jackson said.

By making play more purposeful, preschool teachers are trying to meet standards adopted six years ago by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

As a result, preschool or early childhood education has become more academic, teachers and administrators say.

There are 3,896 children enrolled in Head Start and PreK Counts classes through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, plus 72 children in Early Head Start through the AIU. Head Start is a federal program that helps youngsters get ready for kindergarten, while Early Head Start helps children from birth through age 3.

All told, 41.6 percent of all the children 5 and younger in Allegheny County receive quality early education programs of some sort, including in the city of Pittsburgh, according to the state 2010-11 Office of Child Development and Early Learning annual report.

The intermediate unit received $13.9 million last year from federal and state governments to operate early childhood classes or contract with districts or nonprofit groups for them.

Forty years of research showing that about 90 percent of a children's brain develops by age 5 drives higher early education standards, said Catherine Lobaugh, assistant executive director for early childhood, family and community services at the AIU.

“We know that the stronger the start, the better the finish,” she said.

However, a federal study done in 2010, called the Head Start Impact Study, found that the gains of Head Start do not persist over time. As a result, the Obama administration this spring required some organizations offering Head Start to compete for their grants again if they did not do a good job teaching children, said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In the past, they competed for grants if they did a poor job of paperwork.

Barnett places Pennsylvania “late in the pack” in terms of supporting early education. He said the proportion of 4-year-olds in state-funded preschools here rose from 7 percent in 2006-07 to 17 percent in 2009-10, then slipped to 16 percent the next year as the state grappled with the recession.

A $50,000 grant from United Way of Allegheny County is helping the intermediate unit and school districts assist children in moving from preschool to kindergarten smoothly, said Chris Rodgick, director of early childhood education programs, Head Start and PreK Counts for the Intermediate Unit.

In the meantime, preschool teachers make sure their lessons meet state standards.

Preschoolers have to learn to roll and throw a ball to attain the health and physical education standard, so Jackson's lesson required them to toss a bean bag into a container and bowl with a pumpkin. The lesson improves their gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

“We want to make sure our students are prepared,” said Ian Miller, supervisor of early childhood programs in the Highlands School District.

Early childhood programs give children a chance to scribble, a precursor to writing, and teach them how to negotiate with their classmates and keep their hands to themselves, said Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit group based in Squirrel Hill.

Maria Dayka of the Keystone Oaks School District and Judy Moraly of the South Fayette School District teach high school students how to run a nursery. If the students don't become teachers, at least they will become better parents, their teachers said.

“The more brain connections we can make with children at this age, the better comprehension, learning and understanding they're going to have for their future,” Moraly said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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