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LEWISBURG, W.Va. — Shenandoah Cochran, 34, greeted the two teachers at the front door of her elevated house in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, like family friends. Her youngest children, 5-year-old Daniel Pearson and Shenabelle Pearson, 3, abandoned a late-morning snack of fresh-sliced strawberries and mandarin orange pieces to join the trio of adults at the door.
“He’s been asking when you all were going to get here,” Cochran said as Daniel tugged at her hands eager to show his preschool teachers his Batmobile bed and miniature car collection.
Unlike most states, West Virginia offers free, universal preschool to all 20,000 of its 4-year-olds, as well as to 3-year-olds with special needs. Experts here say the effort to offer every child in the state a high-quality preschool spot has taken lots of time and money — almost 20 years so far and $98 million in state spending in 2018 — to get right.
“Data shows if it’s not going to be a quality program, then it’s not going to impact children and families,” said Nancy Hanna, an associate superintendent of Greenbrier County Schools who oversees early childhood education. Hanna said collaboration and a focus on enabling children to self-regulate are two of the most important elements of her county school district’s success.
One part of that collaboration — ensuring smooth transitions for students from home to preschool and preschool to kindergarten — is what brought Daniel’s teachers from Alderson Elementary, lead teacher Audrey Persinger and assistant teacher Terri Webb, to his home in early May.
This meeting is one of more than 750 happening across Greenbrier County this spring and summer as preschool and kindergarten teachers fan out to talk to the parents and guardians of their students. If not handled with care, the transition from home to preschool and then from preschool to kindergarten can be bumpy for both kids and their adults. In the worst cases, a bad transition can set children up for social and academic failure.
Teachers here say parents share insights about their child more freely in the privacy of the home. And, by observing kids at home, teachers say they develop a better understanding of their students before they even start school.
“You learn that child so well that you know your high-needs children,” said Cassie Shipe, lead preschool teacher at Smoot Elementary, another of Greenbrier County’s 10 preschool sites. Knowing exactly what a child needs to both feel and be safe and comfortable in class from the beginning, she said, “makes all of it just so much easier.”
Preschool and kindergarten teachers in West Virginia are required to communicate with each other about the students they will eventually share, ensuring each child transitions smoothly between the grades. It’s a requirement only a few states have. In Greenbrier, that communication requirement is just a starting point: Educators in the sprawling, 4,800-student district meet with the key adults in each child’s life — in person.
Preschool teachers visit new students’ families at the beginning and end of the school year. They share information about what to expect at school, model the best way to read aloud with young children, leave a children’s book on the importance of regular attendance and invite families to visit the school. Preschool teachers stay in touch with kindergarten and first grade teachers throughout the year, sharing insights about former students and becoming familiar with each grades’ standards. Kindergarten teachers then repeat the visiting process at the beginning of a child’s second school year.
At Daniel’s house on the perfect May morning of his teachers’ latest visit, Persinger and Webb shared a summary of his progress, based on data collected at three points during the preschool year as part of the state’s formative assessment process and on their own informal classroom observations.
West Virginia is one of fewer than a dozen states that has a formative assessment tool for pre-K, which takes data gathered through teacher observation and student work to ascertain where students are developmentally in relation to the state’s early learning standards, according to Milagros Nores, co-director for research at the National Institute for Early Education Research. It is the only state that integrates the data with its education information system, making it accessible to educators statewide, Nores added.
Daniel is “extremely bright,” Persinger told his mom. His speech has improved. He knows all the upper- and lower-case letters and their sounds, can count to the high teens, is “patient with younger children” and “very interested in how things work and grow,” she said. “He is ready to learn to read,” she added. In short, he is kindergarten-ready and kindergarten will be ready for him.
Results from studies published in 2008 and 2018 show that West Virginia’s preschool program has improved at helping kids get ready to learn reading and math in kindergarten. Since 2004-05, the program has consistently erased the gap in literacy performance between low- and high-income children, according to research by NIEER. In the 2004-05 school year, the program closed the gap in math by 6 percent. In 2014-15, it closed 53 percent of that gap, meaning kids started kindergarten much more ready to learn math than ever before. More recent data is not yet available, but ongoing research continues to track the state’s performance.
Cochran was thrilled when she heard the news that her son would be starting kindergarten on track to succeed academically. “Yeah,” she said, clapping with delight. “He wants to go,” she added. “I don’t know how I’m going to tell him he has to take the summer off!”
When Persinger and Webb first met Cochran last August, Daniel’s success in school seemed less assured. Cochran had recently assumed custody of a relative’s teenage twin daughters. And the family was still regrouping after losing their home in a deadly flood that hit the county hard in 2016. She and the children had to be rescued by boat. Daniel, just 2, gripped one first responder so hard that his little fingers left imprints on the man’s arm.
Daniel is not alone among young children in starting school with trauma in his short past. Nor is he a rarity in coming from a family trying to find its financial footing: Nationally, 42 percent of children under age 6 live in low-income families. In West Virginia, the rate is 10 percentage points higher. In Greenbrier, a district that is more than 90 percent white, 50 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty. The opioid crisis has also left many children around the country in the care of relatives or foster parents. The impact on West Virginia has been especially stark: The state leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“I never learned in college how to talk to a student who maybe had been up the night before because of a fight at home, or who came to school hungry and shaking because they don’t have enough to eat,” Persinger said. “But now those are things we encounter almost on a daily basis, and we have to be prepared to help that child.”
Teacher anecdotes about kids coming to preschool with behaviors not seen previously in the classroom alerted Associate Superintendent Hanna to the havoc one or two struggling kids can wreak.
“They get pretty violent,” Hanna said, describing the behavior exhibited by young children suffering from trauma or the effects of being exposed to opioids in utero. “They kick, bite, throw chairs, furniture and blocks. It’s hard to get them out of that mode once they’re in it,” she said, but addressing the behavior early is crucial.
“A 2-year-old’s temper tantrum is what they’re having,” Hanna said about the behavior of some 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers. “But when you’re a 120-pound eighth grade male, that [behavior] lands you in alternative school. When you’re an 18-year-old male, it lands you in prison.”
It also makes it hard for every child in that classroom to learn. But removing troubled preschool students from the classroom is not an option. The state recently prohibited preschool suspension, except as a last resort in extreme situations and then only temporarily. Suspension has never been a practice in Greenbrier, according to Hanna. The school system is responsible for ensuring kids “have all the tools in the tool belt” to be successful, productive members of society, she said. “We have to provide those kids the support because they really need it.”
To keep all kids on a track toward academic success, Greenbrier County Schools provides instruction for teachers on how to approach children dealing with past or ongoing trauma and how to teach social emotional regulation. The district also offers mental health services for teachers and provides coverage when they need to attend meetings or make home visits during the school day. At the start of the school year, administrators spend days in classrooms they know beforehand will have a disruptive student to help support that child, as well as the teachers and the other students. Starting this fall, teams of experts will work with teachers one on one to help them figure out how to meet the needs of children who are struggling to control their behavior, Hanna said.
All of this support means teachers here have the tools to actively teach kids how to have a conversation with another person, how to talk about their feelings and name their emotions, and how to calm themselves through mindfulness exercises and yoga, according to the educators. Teachers here say working together as a team also helps them address and prepare for the issues specific children bring to their preschool, kindergarten and first grade classrooms.
“It’s really great because it lets those teachers ahead of us get to know our students before they even get them,” Persinger said. “It also helps build an awareness, too, of what we’re doing in pre-K. It’s not just keeping them from throwing blocks.”
Before visiting Cochran that bright May morning, Persinger sat down in one of the pint-sized chairs in her classroom beside Anna Osborne, Daniel’s kindergarten teacher for the coming year, to go over his transition information. Hanna was there, too. (A building principal, Title I teacher or social worker may also attend, depending on the child.)
On learning Daniel receives help for a speech impediment, Osborne asked Persinger whether other children can understand him — a practical question that reading Daniel’s file would not answer, according to Hanna.
“Yes, yes,” Persinger responded.
Beyond that, Persinger told Osborne she had no academic concerns about Daniel and that his mother would be “more than happy” to pitch in at home to help with anything he might need to succeed at school.
Osborne cautioned teachers need to be careful not to prejudge students based on what they’ve learned about them in advance. “Next year when they come to me, I have this good information and background, but I’m not going to make assumptions,” Osborne said.
Over the last three years, West Virginia has made marked improvements in providing emotional support in preschool, achieving some of the highest scores ever seen and rivaling highly regarded programs in San Antonio, Texas, and New York City, according to NIEER’s Nores, who is leading a five-year longitudinal study, examining the effectiveness of West Virginia’s preschool program.
For those children who start school lagging behind their peers, “[West Virginia] has a clear vision of how to navigate the deficits the children bring without seeing them as anything more than a skill that needs to be developed,” Nores said. “It’s not children having a problem; it’s children not having a skill.”
Nonetheless, West Virginia’s efforts might not be enough to ensure long-term student success unless the state can find a way to make its early elementary grades as successful as its preschool program — “the national reality” across every program assessed, according to Nores. Without that structural support, data indicates those early gains gradually erode, she said.
Children in Greenbrier County attend public preschool four days a week for seven hours a day. Teachers use student-free Mondays to refresh their classroom materials, plan lessons, meet with each other and make home visits throughout this picturesque county the size of Rhode Island.
While some homes are miles from the school, Cochran’s new house — which she moved her family into after the start of the school year — is close. Persinger and Webb made the five-minute walk down a pleasant, tree-lined street for their spring visit. After the update on Daniel’s progress, they talked with his mom about her own progress. At the first visit, adults are asked to identify goals for themselves and the family as a whole. Webb said Cochran, a single mom, had succeeded in meeting her goals, and Cochran credited some of that success to the connection she’d built with them.
“I think we’ve grown a lot,” Cochran said. She’s more comfortable managing her large brood. She said she can now get everyone together and out the door as needed. She’s also worked with Persinger and Webb to improve Daniel’s eating habits — he used to only agree to eat chicken nuggets or pizza — and to help him overcome his speech impediment. She’s pleased with her son’s progress at school and sees the value in his attendance.
“He’s got to make his own little friends and he’s got a story to tell,” she said.
Cochran initially saw meeting friends as the primary purpose of preschool, but she now views education as that “extra step” to help all her children “to be so smart that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”
This story about preschool programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.