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Pre-K program leader Caitlin Curtis is setting young kids up for lifelong success

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Caitlin Curtis is an early childhood development coordinator at Neighborhood House in Southwest Portland. She helps create curriculum and arrange classrooms to fit childrens needs.When you think of a teacher, chances are you envision someone in a K-12 setting, but some of the most important learning happens before kindergarten.

That's what makes Caitlin Curtis so passionate about early childhood development and education.

Curtis, 36, is the education coordinator for the early childhood program at Neighborhood House, a nonprofit organization addressing hunger and homelessness in Southwest Portland. The organization also provides early childhood care. Neighborhood House uses a Head Start preschool model for its 3- and 5-year-olds.

It's a program that is often overlooked and misunderstood, Curtis said.

"Our field has been really underfunded and undervalued for decades," Curtis said. "I think in COVID it's become really clear, the value of early childhood programs."

As President Joe Biden pushes to expand access to free public preschool programs, there's been a national spotlight on early childhood education. Most studies on the impacts of attending preschool indicate positive outcomes later in life and better preparedness for school among young children, as the Brookings Institution recently noted.

Before landing at Neighborhood House, Curtis, who grew up in Troutdale, was a head teacher in a pre-kindergarten classroom for nine years. She studied early childhood at Mt. Hood Community College then went on to get a psychology degree from Portland State University. Prior to joining Neighborhood House, she worked for Joyful Noise Child Development Center.

She admits working with young children wasn't always her plan.

"I went and worked and thought 'oh, I'll work for two years in the classroom and go back and get a counseling degree,' but I loved it so much. It's just amazing to watch kids grow," Curtis said.

In her current role, she creates lesson plans, assesses development levels, helps set up classrooms and develops curriculum, all with the goal of giving kids vital skills they'll need as they enter school.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Caitlin Curtis works with preschool-aged children at Neighborhood House in Southwest Portland. She oversees the early childhood education program."We're not just babysitters. We're actually assessing the children for their development," Curtis explained, noting many confuse Head Start pre-school programs with daycare.

"Kids will come into the classroom and not know how to hold a pencil and they don't know their letters. By the end of the year, they know their alphabet. It's also the social-emotional side. By the end of the year, they're saying, 'when you're done, can I have that toy?' versus coming into the classroom and grabbing whatever toy they want. By the end of the year, they're using breathing techniques and going to get a drink of water and hugging their stuffed animal. They're regulating their emotions on their own."

Outside of her job, she does advocacy for early childhood education programs at the state level. Curtis serves on the Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children — an advocacy and accreditation program that's part of national association. Curtis is a volunteer who chairs ORAEYC's public policy committee.

"We form relationships with lawmakers, state representatives and senators and stay up to date on early childhood legislation," Curtis explained.

The early childhood program at Neighborhood House serves low-income families in the Southwest Portland area. Currently, there are about 100 kids from 94 families in the program. They do health and dental screenings on site twice a year, provide families with car seats, clothing or food when needed. The teachers at Neighborhood House also do visits with the families they serve and offer wraparound programs.

Debra Arndt, Curtis's mother, has watched her daughter excel.

"When she worked for Joyful Noise Child Development Center, there were parents who changed schools just to get Caitlin as their child's teacher because of her reputation," Arndt said. "She has a special gift for working with the more troubled children and in many cases the effect of her teaching and relationship with a child made a big difference in their behavior, even at home."

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