MERRILLVILLE — Fieler Elementary School teachers Kim Drapac and LaToya Tyson jumped at the opportunity to work with young children in a pilot early kindergarten program at the school.
Merrillville schools interim Superintendent Michael Berta said the early kindergarten classes at Fieler are designed to engage students in age-appropriate activities.
"These activities will increase the probability of success in academics now and as the kids progress in school. The class is very success orientated and the kids experience joy in learning," Berta said. "We will monitor the success of these students as they progress in the future."
Berta said discussion already has begun to maintain the Fieler early kindergarten program for the 2018-19 school year as well as possibly expanding the experience for more children next year.
"Providing quality educational experiences for these young students certainly is much more desirable then having to remediate later," he said.
Indiana is one of 35 states that doesn't require kindergarten, and in fact, doesn't mandate that children start school until they are 7. Indiana education leader Jennifer McCormick has said she would like to lower the compulsory attendance age to 5 to require children to be in school two years earlier.
Early kindergarten pilot program
Fieler Principal Lynne Peters said there are 34 4-year-olds in the program right now with a "sizeable" waiting list.
The children are in class all day just like other schoolchildren in the building. There are 461 students in the kindergarten through fourth-grade school.
Peters said administrators believe the early intervention and instruction for children will make a big difference in their academic progress throughout their school years.
"We have many children whose first school experience is when they enter kindergarten," she said. "The early kindergarten program, which is free to parents, allows us to build a foundation. This is the pilot year for it. The children were screened so we had initial data on them. It's a full-day program and students get bus transportation, and some are dropped off to school by their parents."
After children complete the early kindergarten program, they move on to regular kindergarten and are far more ready for it because of this early learning experience, Peters said.
Teachers work to prepare children for school
Drapac and Tyson have both created a fun and cohesive classroom designed to interest the little ones. Both teachers have been trained to work with youngsters and use a curriculum that teaches the children English, Spanish and sign language.
Each classroom offers the children a variety of centers including a drawing center, work tables for letters and sounds and the shape center where they can build puzzles.
Drapac, in her seventh year teaching, transitioned from working in the autistic program.
"Mrs. Tyson and I both thought this was a phenomenal and amazing program," she said. "The goal is not just academics but also social and emotional. In addition to the academics, we teach the children how to be in school and what school is all about.
"In Merrillville, we believe that the earlier the intervention, the better. One of the goals of this program is for them to come loving school, following the rules and learning how to be a respectful citizen. Our curriculum is really good because we have several different cultures in our school district and it exposes them to that. The children are learning sign language and they're grasping that even better than older kids."
Both teachers say sign language has provided an unexpected benefit.
Tyson said it's been a great behavioral benefit in that children can sign when they have to go to the bathroom without interrupting the class.
Tyson, who earned a degree in early childhood education, is in her eighth year at Fieler. She said she is licensed to teach students from birth to third grade. In her time at Fieler, she has taught second grade for five years and for two years at third grade before moving into the early kindergarten program.
"This is the foundation of what we do," Tyson said. "We want to have a positive impact on children especially in the areas of their social and emotional growth, and behavior. Once a child gets an understanding of school and the importance of school, there are fewer issues as they move forward into other grades and they perform better academically."
Tyson said she is a strong proponent of structure, and teaches students what to expect during the school day.
"The first semester, we're busy with making sure that children understand how to be in school," she said, "and second semester, we'll focus heavily on academics."