Bright Beginnings

Miles Williamson, 5, left, and his preschool classmates sit on the carpet as teacher Amanda Marston reads a book to them at W.W. Robinson Elementary School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – It’s not all fun and games at Shenandoah County preschool programs, where students work hard to prepare for kindergarten.

Gina Stetter, director of Special Education for Shenandoah County Public Schools, said people have misconceptions about what happens in a preschool classroom, often confusing the terms preschool and daycare.

“I can remember people saying ‘What’s so hard?'” she said. People think preschool staff teach the kids how to play and eat snacks, but they are actually teaching reading, writing, working with others and much more. The goal of a preschool teacher is to prepare the students to be successful (in) kindergarten, which is especially important for students with disabilities.

“Fifty percent of the kids that we serve in preschool are kids with disabilities,” she said, noting that includes kids with autism, Down syndrome and speech impairments as well as those with multiple disabilities affecting them.

The other 50 percent are students “who come from backgrounds where they are already at a disadvantage before they even start. They may not have books in the home and they may not have toys in the home,” she added.

Preschool teacher Amanda Marston has a moment of success with Gabriel Neff, 4, during a play dough exercise at W.W. Robinson Elementary School. At left is Allison Guardado Martinez, 5. Rich Cooley/Daily

Selena Rhoades, preschool services coordinator for Shenandoah County Public Schools, said the children are taught in a group setting, but the teacher has to also be aware that some may need extra help throughout the day.

“Some children are ready to read, and then you have some who aren’t talking yet and you have to meet all of those needs,” she said.

Amanda Marston is a fifth year preschool teacher at W.W. Robinson Elementary School and operates a fully inclusive classroom. This is the county’s 20th year running these fully inclusive preschools, meaning children with disabilities are educated with peers without disabilities.

She teaches 18 students in her classroom operating on a typical school day schedule. She also has two paraprofessionals working with her in the classroom.

Marston decorated her room with kid-friendly toys and furniture, including a kid kitchenette, a coloring area, a table and chair for tea parties, colorful rugs, and many blocks, dolls and toys for the children to play with. The time they have to play allows them to develop friendships and learn how to share and work as a group.

Gabrielle George, 4, looks over the book "The Ten Pigs" during her preschool class at W.W. Robinson Elementary. Rich Cooley/Daily

Students are also taught life skills such as toilet training and asking for help with tasks such as opening a milk carton or removing a straw from a wrapper.

The rest of the day they are learning their ABCs, numbers, days of the week, and how to write their names. Books and songs are used to keep them engaged throughout the learning process.

“These kids are so much like a sponge. They’re just absorbing everything I’m throwing at them,” she said.

Marston keeps track of each student’s progress and students receive individualized support when needed. The children also have a booklet and each month they write their name in it. Flipping through the booklet, progress on their writing is shown since the beginning of the school year.

Students are also exposed to a typical school environment through lunch in the cafeteria, music and outside play. They learn the routine of being a student, following directions and walking in a line. Since they are so young, they also take a nap during the day.

Gabriel Neff, 4, and his classmates learn how to separate paper and plastic on the floor during their preschool class. Rich Cooley/Daily

“They work from when they walk in the door from when they leave,” she said.

All of these skills – educational, social and emotional lessons – will prepare them for kindergarten.  Martson said she has received much thanks from parents who said the preschool program has allowed their children to grow and become better students. She added that kindergarten teachers tell her they can tell which students were in the preschool program because they tend to be ahead of the others students.

According to Rhoades, there are nine Virginia Preschool Initiative/Early Childhood Special Education inclusion preschool classrooms within the Shenandoah County Public Schools. W.W. Robinson Elementary School holds three of the preschools, Central High School has one, Sandy Hook Elementary School has two and Ashby Lee Elementary School has three.

Of the 150 students served within the program, 51 require an individualized education program (IEP).

There are also other preschool service placements within the community, serving 54 students, all with an IEP, she added. The school system is federally mandated to serve students with an IEP.

Landyan Kuykendall, 5, takes a bite out of his taco during lunch inside W.W. Robinson Elementary School. Rich Cooley/Daily

The total number of preschool students served within Shenandoah County Public School division is 204, with 105 IEPs.

To sign a child up for preschool services, an application is available on the school division’s website or can be sent through the mail. A birth certificate, vaccination records and income verification must be provided on the application.

Rhoades said she is continually receiving applicants for the program and has a waiting list of at least 20 students. When a spot isn’t available at the school’s program, they will try to find a spot at one of the community-based preschools.

Stetter said all preschool staff members are licensed in early childhood special education, as well as elementary education up to second grade. These teachers serve as special education teacher and general education teacher, requiring staff to have both degrees.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com

Preschool student Kenadie Talley, 5, shares a moment with deputy Whitney Mauck, school resource officer, during lunch. Rich Cooley/Daily

Moises Cuevara-Conilla, 5, finger paints during preschool class at W.W. Robinson Elementary School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

Melvin Duevara, 4, returns to his preschool class from recess on a recent weekday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Students hold hands as they form a circle at preschool at W.W. Robinson Elementary School. Rich Cooley/Daily

Joseph Embrey, 5, goes down the playground slide during recess at preschool. Rich Cooley/Daily