It’s not just playtime for these 4-year-olds in Frankford (but don’t tell them that). At the Indian River School District Early Learning Center, structured play is how preschoolers make connections, with each other and within their brains.
“Early childhood is a steppingstone into education. I feel sometimes it’s perceived as babysitting [but] they are learning through play. There’s a purpose to why we’re building with blocks or counting bears,” said Ashley Rowe, the ELC’s Teacher of the Year for 2021-2022.
Rowe teaches at Project VILLAGE, a free half-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-old children with qualifying risk factors. The goal is to prepare them for kindergarten, academically, physically and emotionally.
Children might qualify for this Early Childhood Assistance Program (ECAP) if they are experiencing poverty, need special education services or are English-language learners. They have access to therapists, including speech pathologists. But they’re also learning to be in a school environment with other kids.
“They need to feel secure. This [might be] the first time they’ve been exposed to English, and this is the first time they’re in a school … so we support them as needed.”
Project VILLAGE heavily involves and supports the parents, too.
“As a parent, I know it’s hard to ask for help,” said Rowe, so her coworkers encourage families to ask questions. “It takes a village to raise a child, so, if I’m not teaming with them and they don’t feel important,” then parents won’t feel connected or invested to the school.
Parents, she said, are grateful that Project VILLAGE always provides a translation, whether it’s through a staff member or just a mobile app.
And the kids absolutely blossom, she said. Rowe recalled watching three students become best friends one year, each speaking Turkish, Spanish or English: “They were best friends in school, and they had their own communication system” through their own system of play and interaction.
However, COVID-19 was challenging. The school had to suspend the usual home visits, plus who wants to tell children to remain 3 to 6 feet apart? But the teachers persevered, the students worked from home when needed, and they still learned so much.
“They’re fun, energetic, so kind,” Rowe said.
Recently, a few children helped a classmate to find his way to the correct learning station. She said she loves “how they go out of their way to help another student. And at this age, it just melts your heart.”
Rowe was meant for this job. During high school, at Indian River High School, Rowe worked part-time at a daycare. She worked in private care and as a paraprofessional. Around 2015, she took a Project VILLAGE teaching position at Southern Delaware School of the Arts, and she’s mentored other new teachers since then. Someday, she said, she’d like to run her own childcare center.
“Students love her because she is kind, loving, fun and cares about them,” wrote one colleague. “Ashley is able to see exactly what each child brings to the community, and her teaching approach involves finding and using children’s unique strengths to help them overcome their struggle and develop a positive self-concept.”
For now, she’s proud to represent her school as Teacher of the Year.
“It just really was uplifting to know I made a difference,” she said. “It’s a huge honor to be standing with [my colleagues] and representing them.”