RACINE — Shannon Venegas has noticed a big change in her dual-language, 4-year-old kindergarten class at the Racine Early Education Center, 2015 Franklin St., this year compared to her class last year.

Although the students are not very different, she explained that this year’s class overall is scoring better, learning faster, communicating more and developing more control over their emotions than in the past — the difference is full-day 4K rather than the normal half-day program, Venegas said.

“They’ve had double the amount of time to be working on how to communicate with one another, how to regulate their own emotions … their self-help skills,” Venegas said. “I think when you have them full-day and they’re engaged in a program that’s specifically center around their learning, their social and emotional, just their overall being, I think that it is huge in 4K.”

Her classroom is one of four classrooms piloting full-day 4K in the district, serving about 65 of about 1,150 district students enrolled in 4K.

Adding another full-day 4K classroom, as well as beginning a Montessori preschool program, are among several early-learning programs and initiatives the Racine Unified School District is looking to start or expand next year, helping young children get an early start.

By expanding these early learning and preschool initiatives, district administrators hope to get young children in school earlier when their brains are more receptive to new information, according to Culleen Witthuhn, the district’s director of early learning.

Prevention over intervention

The long-term goal is that the district can address high-risk students early, before they fall behind, by getting services to special-needs students early and closing achievement gaps before they get out of hand.

Witthuhn described the focus on early learning as spending money in advance to get students on the right track early, rather than spending money later on special services and remedial courses.

“When you look at funding and how do we spend our money, it’s kind of like health care: Is it prevention or is it intervention? That’s what early learning is all about,” she explained. “If you can get in there ahead of time and prevent the delays from happening or catch them up at the beginning when they really have a lot of growth time with more instructional time, then you will spend less on special education and remediation services later on.”

Learning through play

Witthuhn explained that children’s brains are most flexible and ready to learn in their earliest years, when they are constantly learning new things and solving new problems.

However, rather than sitting in desks learning arithmetic, Witthuhn explained that young students learn best by sensory experience and experimentation, essentially by playing with objects and toys that teach them something.

Early learning programs serve to give these children access to educational materials and exercises they may not have access to at home, especially in more impoverished homes.

New, expanding programs

To get more students started early, the district plans to expand Parent-Child Oriented Classroom, a half-day federally funded program for 3-year-olds primarily serving high-poverty areas. The program is usually four days a week and requires a parent to attend at least one of those days.

That program has about 115 students at Red Apple Elementary School, 914 St. Patrick St., and will expand to add a morning and afternoon session, 34 students total, at Goodland Elementary School, 4800 Graceland Blvd.

Another program that will begin next school year is a Montessori preschool program for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old students that will also begin at Goodland next school year. District administrators announced last week that if the Montessori program is popular with parents, the program may be turned into its own elementary school located in the Sturtevant Sportsplex, 10116 Stellar Ave., if the district buys that building.

The district’s smallest and most tentative expansion in early learning is adding one new full-day 4K classroom, but only if the district can find funding in the current budget.

The district already has four such 4K classrooms — three at the Racine Early Education Center and one at Racine Civil Leaders Academy, 1325 Park Ave, serving a total of 65 students. That does not include the full-day 4K program offered at Atonement Lutheran Church, 2915 Wright Ave., by Higher Expectations for Racine County Youth.

Most of the district’s nearly 1,150 4K students are in half-day programs, but Witthuhn noted that early test results showing students in full-day programs are hitting year-end goals faster than their peers in half-day programs.

Administrators are not sure where the fifth classroom would be next year, but they expect it would cost about $30,000 to add staff time. They noted that the state covers 60 percent of 4K costs, leaving the district to cover the other 40 percent.

Kelly Newby, another full-day 4K teacher at the Racine Early Education Center, said she has also noted her students are learning much more quickly this year and hopes that the extra class time will instill a love of learning that they will carry on throughout the rest of their education.

“I think if they start at this age and they love coming to school … then when they enter the school the following year, they’re going to be excited and ready to learn,” she said. “If we can foster that love of learning at a young age, it is my hope — and I think many other teachers desire — that they continue that desire to learn.”

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