INSPIRED. Kids At Meaningful Play
Lee County Schools is well-known for the quality K-12 education offered to students – from award-winning teachers and administrators to inspirational students and innovative learning environments which give back to the community, the people of Lee County have a lot to be proud of when it comes to education at the primary and secondary levels.
Less known, but just as important – if not more – is the pre-K education offered at three (and soon four) of the district's schools.
“When you are building something like a rocket, if you mess up the first step, that rocket isn't going to land on the moon,” said Silvia Huffer, the principal at Warren Williams Elementary School and Lee County Schools' pre-school coordinator. “That's pre-K. If we can provide a strong start, that first piece lays the foundation for everything that comes after. It's up to us to help these children grow and be ready to learn in kindergarten.”
Pre-school options in Lee County are plentiful, but the Lee County Schools' pre-K program currently serves nearly 200 three-and-four-year-olds at Warren Williams, Floyd Knight Elementary, and Broadway Elementary. There will be room for another 36 pre-K students at W.B. Wicker Elementary when it opens in August.
On a recent weekday in Millie Harris' pre-K class at Warren Williams, 18 four-year-olds engaged in a number of meaningful play activities, ranging from putting together puzzles, working together in a play kitchen, and arranging letters on an alphabet-themed carpet. The children are in class for a full day, from 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon.
“I play all the games and then I eat lunch,” explained Yasmine, one of the children.
“I like all the colors. And you have to learn your ABC's,” Nolan, one of the other children, offered.
Harris, who's been teaching preschool for about 15 years, said she'd always been attracted to the idea of teaching pre-K children.
“I always thought that if you could get your hands on them young, then it would really make a difference,” she said. “I didn't know that I would end up learning so much from them. The way their brains work is amazing.”
Although it looks like a lot of play (as well as a nap), Harris said it's a classroom like any other.
“The first thing we talk about in the morning is what we're going to do, and they're always reminded of classroom expectations,” she said. “We also have discussion time, and the important thing is that they're learning how to be a friend and how to get along. It's always great when the parents come to you and tell you they see a big change in their child at home.”
Huffer, who was Lee County Schools' 2014-15 Principal of the Year, said that classroom environment is important.
“A lot of the curriculum is play-based, but it is meaningful play,” she said. “We do not babysit. The children are rotating to different stations and we're giving them prompts.”
The pre-K program itself is a bit complex – parents sign up through the Lee County Partnership for Children, which works closely with the district on obtaining state funds for the program, including grants. In addition, there are concerns to address about income levels and the readiness level of each child – some students with special needs (“exceptional children”) have individual education plans and are in their own, smaller classrooms, and there are also instances of “blended” classrooms which also have a number of typically developing children.
Huffer said those blended classrooms, however, are an amazing example of what's possible with children when they're preschool aged.
“It's a beautiful opportunity for those (typically) developing children to develop empathy and to learn about differences and being respectful and mindful,” Huffer said. “If we can teach our children that it's okay to be different, can you imagine what kind of society we will have? And for those kids with an (individual education plan), they learn so much from those typically developing children. It's a great role model, and both groups of children benefit from each other.”
For Huffer, it all adds up to the opportunity to shape children at the earliest possible age – and she's thrilled to be a part of it.
“We may not see a lot of results right away from putting money into early childhood education, but we will see the true results when they are graduating high school and college because they are going to be lifelong learners and be more resilient,” she said. “The kind of progress we make in pre-K is so important because you can't make it up later.”
Inspired is a digital digest published each week during the academic year by Lee County Schools to highlight accomplishments of students, faculty and staff.