Noel Lenhart has always loved education, ever since she was a little girl.
“I just always loved going to school. … I was the one who wanted the workbook at the end of the year,” Lenhart said.
She chased that love into a career and was recently named the Teacher of the Year for 2017-2018 at the G.W. Carver Educational Center in Frankford.
Lenhart teaches children ages 3 and 4 who have developmental delays in the Indian River School District’s TOTS (Transitioning Our Toddlers to School) program.
“I’ve always loved this age group,” Lenhart said. “I think early intervention is so, so important, because it levels the playing field with their peers. The more early services they can get, the less they are behind.”
She usually has about 23 students daily, split into morning and afternoon sessions.
The TOTS goal is to prepare young children for kindergarten. All of its students have a developmental delay or qualifying disability, such as a speech or hearing impairment. TOTS provides screenings and physical, occupational and speech therapies. All school districts have similar programs.
Lenhart said she loves seeing how quickly students learn, growing from a few words to full sentences in one year. It’s a regular preschool classroom, and learning occurs through hands-on and playtime-based instruction.
“We really try to make it fun for the kids. They don’t even realize they’re learning when they’re here, because they’re in the block station and we’re counting blocks,” Lenhart said.
The difference is that they’re pulled from “play” stations to work on individual needs. That helps children transition to kindergarten and be better prepared, even if they might need help following directions, working and sharing with others, focusing and more.
Children might attend TOTS for a year or two, or just a few hours weekly for several months.
If any parents have concerns about their child’s development, Lenhart encourages them to call the Indian River School District.
“It’s so important for them not to be behind when they start kindergarten,” she said. Some simple remediation now can prevent major delays in the future.
Enrollment is based solely on educational needs. TOTS is open to children of any income or background. IRSD’s TOTS program has also earned a five-star rating from Delaware Stars for Early Success.
“A lot of paperwork involved, especially in special education,” such as lesson plans, data collection for Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals, report-writing and the IEP itself, which is written by teachers, staff and parents. “It can be several hours per student. I do a lot of it at home on my own time, but you have to collect all the data, see where they are.”
Some students might have two goals. Some might have seven. Goals might include focus on an activity or speaking in longer phrases.
But Lenhart said she loves “just being with the kids, seeing them every day and getting them where they need to be,” and then celebrating their success.
Originally, Lenhart’s upstate banking job brought her to Sussex County, where she dedicated her days off to substitute-teaching. Lenhart entered education as a long-term sub at the Howard T. Ennis School, then she became a fulltime resource teacher at Selbyville Middle School.
When she became a mother in 2001, Lenhart left the traditional classroom to teach night courses for Even Start (family literacy) and daycare certification (for other teachers). She has just finished her third year at TOTS.
She said she’s excited about new programs made possible by Carl M. Freeman Foundation grants. That includes the new toddler-sized playground, safely enclosed by an old courtyard.
TOTS also won an “exploring art” program that brings art and live music to the children.
All of the IRSD district Teachers of the Year were honored earlier this spring.
“It was such an honor. There are so many hard-working teachers in this building,” Lenhart said.
Her coworkers called her “compassionate, nurturing, confident, poised and fun.”
“Parents absolutely love her as their child’s first teacher and have nothing but compliments about her throughout the school year,” according to TOTS coordinator Loretta Ewell.
“Noel always advocates in the best interest of the students, trying to bridge the gap between parent and teacher,” another colleague wrote. “Noel is always finding ways to better educate herself, her colleagues and her students.”
Lenhart earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood/elementary education from Wilmington College. She’s currently working on earning a master’s degree in special education.
Lenhart has three children with her husband, who is also a local teacher. Together, she said, they love to travel, camp and explore.