Casey Lee, an early childhood specialist in the Early Learning Center in the Central Valley School District, said she is seeing more families coming through the Early Childhood Education & Assistance Program since the economy has gone downhill.
She said many of the families have never faced joblessness before now.
To help assist lower-income families and get their children better prepared for kindergarten, the Central Valley School District has received funding for an extra 20 ECEAP slots. This year, it will offer the program to 175 students and their families.
ECEAP is a state-funded program that offers education, health and nutrition services and family support to its participants.
Lee, one of the teachers, said the curriculum is a play-based model, creating fun activities for the students who may not realize they are learning.
“It’s a sneak attack,” she said. Many of the lessons are created based on the student’s individual needs.
She said an important element in the program is socializing the students. They learn how to stand in line, who to sit with and how to get along with others during play time. They move from a grab-and-go way of getting what they want to an ask-and-discuss way of doing things. They learn to follow directions.
Barb Sattler, director of the early childhood program, said to be prepared for kindergarten, the students must know their letters, numbers and how to spell their name.
“Literacy is in everything we do in our environment,” Sattler said.
Kristi Blackwood, a family services coordinator at the school, said students qualify for the program based on family income – families must be at or below 110 percent of the federal poverty level. But there are other factors that allow a student to attend such as environmental risk, developmental situations and others. She said they work with the families as a whole, not just the students. Staff members are required to meet with the families for three hours a year to discuss goals and other family issues. These meetings could include home visits.
“If there is a new issue or an old issue that comes up, we’re here to help them,” Blackwood said.
Sattler agreed, and said they provide referrals to community agencies to help the families. They know how to help the parents find low-income dentists, medical services, homelessness services and counseling.
ECEAP also provides the students with skills such as proper tooth-brushing techniques and table manners. Meals are served family-style, and students learn how to pass certain dishes to others.
The program also provides medical, dental, vision and hearing screenings. Blackwood said many children may not know they have poor vision since what they are seeing is normal to them. Vision screenings can alert parents if there is a problem.
Along with the ECEAP program, the school has been integrating its special education students into the class. For every class with 18 students, 12 of them may be ECEAP students while the other six are in special education.
Every class of 18 has two ECEAP teachers and two special education teachers. There are speech pathologists who visit the class, as well as occupational therapists.
“The actual whole class gets it,” Sattler said of the services, not just one or two students.
There are still about 20 slots available in the district for 4-year-olds. The ELC also provides child care for newborns to age 6.