Interim Lower Township school Superintendent Joseph Cirrinicione decided if he couldn’t bring 3-year-olds to school, he would send school to the 3-year-olds.
In September the district began a 3-Year-Old Home Visitation Program to help give the township’s preschoolers and their parents a head start at home. Three staff members typically visit registered children once a week, introducing them to the types of activities they will do in school the following year, and showing parents how they can help their child learn at home.
“For the last 25 years, I’ve been trying to find ways to get into more students’ homes,” Cirrinicione said. “This gives us a chance to meet with families on a regular basis.”
The district had hoped to offer preschool to 3-year-olds this year. But a freeze in state-funded preschool expansion forced officials to limit classes to a half-day for 4-year-olds at Memorial School.
Memorial School Principal Sherry Bosch said the program is important because some students arrive at school with few skills and at age 4 are already behind their peers who know colors, shapes, numbers and letters.
Adele Robinson, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children praised the program for being a creative way to connect the school with the community.
“It’s a very nice school/family engagement project,” she said. “You learn a lot from visiting homes.”
She encouraged the district to make sure the lessons offered to students are age-appropriate and to consider collaborating not just with teachers at the school but also with private preschools and child care providers to help children make a smooth transition to public school.
The program is open to all families in the township. Children must have turned 3 on or before Oct. 1 so they will be eligible for the district preschool program in September. So far, 70 families have registered for the home visitations. Cirrinicione believes there are more out there since almost 180 four-year-olds attend the district preschool program.
The district distributed fliers at back-to-school nights and parents in the program have been helping spread the word.
When teacher Ginny Clark’s car pulls in the driveway for her weekly visit with Marisa Causey, the 3-year-old is peering out the front window, waiting for her.
Rachelle Causey got the flier at her son’s back-to-school night in September and signed up right away. Marisa’s work is proudly displayed on the refrigerator, and she confidently reads the letters of her name, pasted on sections of a paper caterpillar.
“She’s learned numbers, letters, colors and how to spell her name,” Causey said. “She wants to learn more.”
The program is based in a trailer behind the school where the staff makes most their own materials using items most families can also afford — crayons and construction paper. They laminated monogrammed paper placements the students made, which can now be used to practice tracing their names. For a lesson on shapes, the children colored pieces of a cat then put them together — the circle for the head, and triangles for the ears.
“While we work with them we can also be screening the children for problems,” teacher Meagan Young said.
“It really gives us a more true assessment when we work with them one-on-one in a place that is familiar to them,” Clark said.
“And we have seen such progress with the children we work with,” teacher Mary Penn said.
The frequency of visits depends on the need. Some children attend a private preschool and may only get a monthly visit. Most get a weekly visit of 30 to 60 minutes that also includes lessons on healthy eating and grooming — a giant toothbrush and set of false teeth sit on a table in program’s office.
Cirrinicione said the recession has hit the district hard, and almost 60 percent of children in the district are enrolled in the federal free and reduced-fee school meal program. Any extra assistance the district can offer can only help the children as they begin school.
Hours are flexible, and some visits are arranged after work or early evening so parents can participate.
Kara Osmundsen teaches middle school math and is currently on maternity leave after the birth of her son in December. Her 3-year-old, Ella, looks forward to visits from Penn, and headed straight for the kitchen table when she arrived. Ella colored her cat, identified shapes and signed her name to her completed artwork before adding it to the refrigerator gallery.
“She won’t sit and write her last name with me, but she will for Miss Mary,” Osmundsen said. “It’s nice that I can get to see her interact with a teacher. I won’t get to see that once she starts school next year.”
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