Mia Smith, now an 11 year-old fifth-grader at Lord Baltimore Elementary School, fondly remembers her days as a Project VILLAGE preschooler.
“I remember recess mostly, and my teachers, Ms. Reinke and Ms. Bev. One time, another girl in my class and I had the same bookbag, and we were confused and Ms. Reinke had to help us,” she recalled, laughing, reaching far back into her memory of life before kindergarten.
Like Mia, many preschoolers are in need of a quality early childhood education program, but because pre-K is not mandatory in Delaware without an identified need or learning disability, most don’t get it without paying for it.
An added burden for many newcomers to the area, in addition to an economic disadvantage that many of them have, is a language barrier. A full 60 percent of Project VILLAGE preschoolers come from homes where English is not the primary language, and in some of those homes they are not even exposed to English until kindergarten, burdening them with the need to play catch-up to their peers. Enter Project VILLAGE
“Four-year-olds are not really recognized by the state of Delaware,” said current Indian River School District Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting, who was instrumental in Project VILLAGE’s implementation while director of instruction for the district.
She added that it was a priority for the district to get these students – many of whom had both language and economic barriers – up to speed with their peers.
Project VILLAGE (Verbally Intensive Literacy and Learning Activities for Growth in Education) is a language emersion program initiated by the Indian River School District. According to the district, “the program provides a comprehensive, developmentally-appropriate, quality early childhood educational program for economically challenged, qualified 3- and 4-year-olds in the underserved Selbyville, Frankford, Millsboro and Georgetown areas.”
Although not all children in the program are non-native speakers or economically challenged, most are. Jocelyn Reinke, Project VILLAGE teacher at PV East, located in Frankford Elementary School, said that, in the application process, they take the Hispanic and non-English speaking children first, then it is open to students using poverty guidelines and then, after that, there are openings for families with income above the poverty guidelines. Last year, in Frankford, there were 53 applicants for 40 spots. This year, there were 80.
The program uses funds from an Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative (ECAP) grant, Title I funds, local funds, private and corporate sponsors, purchase-of-care and parents’ fees, migrant funds and the Children with Disabilities Act 619.
Because of the collaboration with the district, the students can participate in the USDA nutritional program and receive speech therapy and psychological testing. And, in addition to the classroom activities, daily after-school daycare is available at the Selbyville location. The program has evolved into four sites: Frankford, Selbyville, Georgetown and North Georgetown, with about 140 students enrolled.
Because many of the students are non-native-English speakers, they often start at the beginning, with colors, shapes, etc. And, because of two deaf students taking classes last year in Frankford, Reinke also introduced one more language into the mix: American Sign Language.
“Sign language is a godsend,” shared Reinke. “Last year, I had a Korean student, and by the end of the year he was speaking sign, Spanish, English and Korean.”
They use the DLM curriculum and the BTL or BreakThrough Learning curriculum, and Reinke has nothing but praise for BTL. “It’s fantastic. “It’s used for literacy, and there is a home/school part, a classroom lesson and then an in-depth computer program that can be customized for their level of learning.”
For those who might wonder if the native-English-speaking students or the students who have been exposed to more information in the home setting would be bored or feel left out of the instruction, Reinke explained that, at this particular age, it is easier to include everyone, no matter what level they might be on with their language skills.
“If we are working with shapes, and I ask one student, ‘What’s a square?’ and others already know it, I might move on to a cube for them, and say, ‘How many squares are on a cube?’ or ‘How many lines?’ or ‘How many points?’ They don’t know that other students are getting different questions. They just know I am asking questions.”
Despite the students’ young ages, a typical day is not all play, as some might assume. “We do lots of repetition, lots of pictures and lots of patience,” added Reinke with a laugh. “For the first month, there is lots of little learning going on. We have to first get them to trust us.”
With the added job of introducing English to a child who might not hear it at home, the growth from the beginning of the year to the end is amazing, she noted.
“I had this one girl, from the beginning of the year to now… Now it’s, ‘Mr. Reinke, I…’ with total fluency. I’m a man, but she’s got it,” she added, laughing.
Besides the language growth, children can be expected to count, sort, know similar and different, write their name, know colors, shapes, more and less, and positional words, as well as know how to follow the rules, carry a lunch tray, walk in a line and work together.
“They have work time and play time and know the difference,” said Reinke. “Every day, they have 20 minutes of gross motor play outside, and they also have center time, which they see as play” but which, as Reinke explained, actually involves dexterity exercises, such as cutting or picking things up with tweezers or other tools.
According to Reinke, the most important thing to take away with Project VILLAGE is that the children are learning what they need to be well-equipped for a smooth transition into kindergarten, and beyond.
Because of tracking DSTP scores, the district proudly reports that the ‘vast majority’ or 85 to 90 percent of them are very successful in the rest of their school careers.
“It does a phenomenal job of setting them up for successful school careers,” said Project VILLAGE director Ivan Neal.
“I often express delight at a dream that turned into a reality,” said Bunting. “I have a passion for these little people — 60 percent of who speak no English when they come. And [when they are through the program] these students are fully acclimated to a school setting.” She echoed Neal’s comments, saying that their DSTP scores have consistently remained high.
And for people like Mia’s mother, Leah Campbell, the instruction and encouragement that she and Mia got from the teacher is just as important to her as any of Mia’s test scores, as it truly does take a village for a child to reach success.
“It was Ms. Reinke’s first year, and she wrote on a progress report that Mia was a wonderful child and I was doing a great job with her and to keep up what I was doing,” recalled Campbell. “It was one of the nicest notes ever.”