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A lot has changed since the years when kindergarten was little more than ramped-up day care.
Bolstered by pre-school programs, kindergarten these days is seen as the obligatory first step in a child’s successful education, and by extension, the rest of their lives.
Preparing a child for the transition to school takes more than socialization and learning classroom fundamentals, especially when poverty is a factor – it takes meeting the child’s fundamental needs both at school and at home.
Raising awareness of those needs, and the programs aimed at helping address them, is the purpose behind this week’s 40th annual Week of the Child. The week is being celebrated locally by Lancaster County First Steps to School Readiness Partnership (LCFS).
“All young children need and deserve high-quality early learning experiences that will prepare them for life, and Lancaster has a great opportunity to do our part to help young children,” said Fred Witherspoon, chairman of the Lancaster County First Steps board.
“Week of the Young Child is a time for Lancaster to recognize that ‘Early Years are Learning Years’ for all young children,” he said, borrowing this year’s theme. “Let’s make early learning a community initiative 365 days a year.”
First Steps exists to serve children from birth through five years old with a mission to prepare children to enter first grade “healthy and ready to succeed.”
As part of this year’s Week of the Child, community leaders will read to elementary classes at McDonald Green, Erwin, Clinton, Brooklyn Springs and North elementary schools.
The volunteers include Haile Gold Mine representative Lisa Williams, Lancaster Fire Department Chief Chuck Small, County Council Vice Chairman Larry Honeycutt, community volunteer Verta Looper, Lancaster County school board member Bill Sumner and Kay Dotson of Marsha Patterson Insurance.
The largest celebrations, though, are planned at Clinton Elementary School today and Thursday, April 26.
Today, WSOC meteorologist Steve Udelson will give a presentation to the whole student body and afterward read to the kindergartners.
On Thursday, the school will invite the whole family over for fun.
“All the kindergarten and first grade children are going to go to their classrooms with the families for family activities,” First Steps Executive Director Lora Bryson said. “Then we’ll go back to the cafeteria where they have a little stage and have pizza – and a visit from Winnie the Pooh.”
Though First Steps supports programs at several schools, due to limited resources, it currently works closest with Clinton Elementary, which has the highest concentration in the county of students affected by poverty.
It is also at Clinton Elementary, Bryson said, where the needs of poor preschool and 4-K students are most evident.
Of the school’s 407 students, 97 percent are on free or reduced lunch; 93 percent are minorities, 5 percent caucasian, 2 percent other; 27 percent come from families earning less than $10,000 a year; 31 percent have Individual Education Program plans and 60 are special-needs students.
Bryson said the needs are wide-ranging and must be met so the child can concentrate on learning.
“We look at all their needs,” Bryson said. “If you’re trying to help improve people’s lives and put education at the forefront, it’s kind of hard when they’re hungry or their basic needs aren’t met.”
Bryson said First Steps operates several programs aimed at supporting children and their families according to their needs.
Among them is the Weekend Backpack Feeding Program. Funded by the Lancaster High School Junior Civitans and the Springs Close Foundation, the program supplies 50 deserving children with backpacks containing enough food for the weekend.
Other programs include the Step By Step Family Resource Center, which has implemented two best practices parenting programs, Raising a Thinking Child and Incredible Years.
Another program aimed in large part at helping parents help their children is the well-known, and hugely successful, Countdown to Kindergarten “school transition strategy” program set to begin in June.
This year’s cohort includes 30 children. Over the summer, kindergarten teachers will visit homes to establish relationships with their future students’ parents and help the parents learn to foster a learning environment in the home.
The program also provides the students with backpacks of school supplies, books and other learning materials.
At the end of the summer, just before school starts, the program throws a Countdown to Kindergarten bash at the school so students can get to know the school and what to expect on their first day.
Shining a light on those and other programs – and most of all, how the community can support them – is the whole idea behind the Week of the Young Child, Bryson said.
“We want the community to understand that they need to invest in early education and trying to change the quality of early education care in Lancaster,” Bryson said.
“It’s going to take a lot of money to do that, but not just money, we need people to invest time.”
Bryson said business owners can invest time in children even if it’s something as simple as letting their employees take time off for wellness checks or parent/teacher conferences at schools.
First Steps offers many opportunities to volunteer, Bryson said, from helping deliver Weekend Backpacks to tutoring, from volunteering to be a “grade mother” at a local school to serving on the First Steps board.
“Yes, Week of the Young Child is to raise awareness, but it’s also to help people understand that young children are important,” Bryson said. “We’re always looking for people who are committed to helping children.
“Just give us a call, we’ll put you to work,” she said.
For details on Week of the Young Child, or how you can help Lancaster County First Steps, call (803) 286-8000.
Contact Reece Murphy at (803) 293-1151