West Linn-Wilsonville explores benefits of preschool
A West Linn-Wilsonville School District preschool classroom is unlike any other classroom in the district. When you walk into preschool at Bolton Primary, for instance, the first thing you see is a wooden cutout of a house, with "The Three Bears" written on top.
While the entryway is too small for any adult, it's the perfect size for a 4-year-old to squeeze through, leading to the home's "living room" where they will find Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear's chairs complete with their accompanying porridge.
Turn to the other side of the classroom and you find an art station, complete with watercolors, Play-doh, colored paper and crayons littered about. Venture even further into the classroom and you'll find the "cozy cube," which is stocked with fluffy pillows, warm blankets and a wide variety of books.
The walls, meanwhile, are covered floor to ceiling with educational posters and student artworks. Giant letters spell out the alphabet in the center of the classroom, leading the way to one of the more popular areas of the room — the story circle. No matter where you turn in a WL-WV preschool classroom, seemingly every inch of the space is used in some way, and although certain elements of the busy room naturally give off a sense of chaos, WL-WV Assistant Superintendent of Primary Schools David Pryor assures that everything is intentionally placed; every aspect of the classroom's design is carefully thought out.
"Our preschools are play-based, but they are intentionally play-based," says Bolton Principal Holly Omlin-Ruback, who does much of the preschool planning alongside Pryor. "We use a curriculum called 'creative curriculum,' which is something that is highly recommended by (the National Council of Early Childhood Education). It is very play-based, but it's incredibly intentional. We have science concepts woven into the areas that children will go to play, teachers assign vocabulary to components of those areas, and use the correct vocabulary for math and science, so kids are starting to build that vocabulary base."
The West Linn-Wilsonville School District has had at least one preschool embedded in one of its primary schools for more than 20 years, but it's put an emphasis on growing the program to more primary schools in recent years. Currently, there are four preschools — at Bolton, Sunset, Cedaroak Park and Boones Ferry — and the district plans to add preschool programs at Boeckman Creek and Stafford primaries for the 2017-18 school year.
All WL-WV preschools are tuition-based and vary in scope, although all classes are three-hour sessions. Boeckman Creek and Stafford will enroll 4-year-olds only, while the other four primary schools are open to 3- and 4-year-olds. Preschool classes also vary in length to provide options for parents who might only want to send their children to school a few times per week at a cheaper price. Some preschool classes are three days per week, while Stafford and Bolton will offer four-day programs and Boeckman and Boones Ferry will offer five-day programs. Each individual preschool class has its own part-time teacher, as well as a classroom aid, and teachers partake in professional development and collaboration sessions like other district staff.
Pryor says educational research shows that adding preschool to public school districts has many benefits, both in the short term and long term. Getting young students acclimated to their school teaches routines and expectations, but also allows children to feel comfortable in what can be a scary new setting.
"Some of the academic benefits are obvious and we get a chance to steep families and children in our way of education and that really well prepares them for kindergarten, but there's also a growing body of research that shows it's a really great investment for school districts," Pryor says. "Something we've shared with our board is several research studies that show a dollar invested in preschool can actually pay back $3-7 over the course of a child's K-12 education.
"The earlier we can establish a partnership and relationship with a family, the better we serve them over the course of their children's school experience. A child coming to kindergarten feeling like they have a strong community and they're known, and they have strategies for being successful — that just accelerates the learning they're going to do throughout the 13 years we have them after preschool."
Some of the district's preschools also offer world language immersion, specifically Spanish at Boeckman and Cedaroak and Chinese at Stafford and Sunset. While different than the district's Dual Language Program — where students essentially split their day into half Spanish and half English learning — Pryor says introducing world language components as early as possible is a district priority.
"We see an opportunity to begin infusing language instruction and language learning and culture learning at an early age," he says. "As you would expect, it's an opportunity when appropriate to infuse some vocabulary, learn songs and learn about the culture. We work really hard to bring in either a teacher or an instructional assistant who is a native speaker of either Chinese or Spanish, and because children at that age, their brains are wired to learn language, we're taking an opportunity of sort of a biological imperative to maximize language use."
As the year progresses and students get closer to kindergarten the curriculum and classroom structure begins to change, according to Omlin-Ruback. At Bolton, for example, students interact with their "Three Bears" play area, learning basic concepts like counting while learning to cooperate with fellow students. At both Bolton and Boones Ferry, meanwhile, students partake in "story time" once they begin to master classroom routines and teacher-student relationships. Taking turns, children tell their story out loud, as their teacher records the inventive tales, and the class later acts out the production using their imaginations.
"Teaching preschool is a very artful endeavor, because first and foremost we want children excited to come to school and have a really strong relationship," Pryor says. "We always have an eye on 'What are those kindergarten and first-grade learning standards, and how do we influence (students) so that they're already working towards some of those things? Story time is one of those activities that is a good combination of play and learning."
While Pryor and Omlin-Ruback say anecdotally they can see the benefits district preschool provides, the district hasn't yet tracked assessment of WL-WV students who started in the district at the preschool level compared to students who simply started in kindergarten or transferred in later. But they say assessment, both short term and long term, is something they're thinking about.
"We're growing our assessment literacy across the district for all grades as a way to inform us when we're making leadership moves or changing teacher practice," Pryor says. "As we add two more preschool programs that just increases our sample size, which makes whatever endeavor we do in the future have more validity. We'll continue the conversation around assessment. It's an exciting thing to think about."
At some point in the future Pryor says the district hopes to add preschool at all of its primary schools, but there isn't classroom space at some schools like Trillium Creek and Lowrie primaries at the moment. He says that while preschool classes add to school community, they also require more space than K-5 does, mainly because of the separate play space preschool requires.
"We also have to pay attention to school sizes, because we want preschool to be in a really nice, beautiful space, and currently we just don't have that opportunity at every school," Pryor says.
Pryor says preschool enrollment is limited based on space, and priority is given to families living within the West Linn-Wilsonville School district. Contact individual schools for financial aid information and go to wlwv.k12.or.us/domain/160 to register or learn more about the district's preschool program.