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Community Pre-Ks Succeeding with Digital Learning Plans

Partner organizations of the Mount Vernon City School District that provide full-day pre-kindergarten for hundreds of students across Mount Vernon have met the challenge of rapidly converting their building-based, in-person student learning programs to digital learning.

The district had been offering full-day universal pre-kindergarten, utilizing both school district buildings and staff as well as community-based organizations that have partnered with the district, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic swept in during March.

These community organizations have brought creative digital learning to life for their 3- and 4-year-old students since the closing of buildings. The programs are run through organizations such as Friendship for Tots Early Childhood Learning Center, Westchester Community Opportunity Program (Mount Vernon Daycare, Mount Vernon Head Start and Toddler’s Park), and Our Lady of Victory School.

“The Mount Vernon City School District is so proud to have partnerships with these community organizations, especially at this critical and challenging time,” Superintendent Dr. Kenneth R. Hamilton. “Their ability to adapt quickly to a digital learning environment has been nothing short of remarkable and their dedication to their students will have a positive, long-lasting impact on their educational development.”

The schools have incorporated both live and recorded video instruction, student portfolio activities, learning from lessons in platforms such as Google Classroom, MyTeachingStrategies Family, and Dojo, lesson packets from the district, art activities with common objects at home, physical activities like dance lessons, and small group instruction through Zoom. For students who do not have access to a laptop or other device for digital learning, schools are reaching out to parents to provide lesson plans and homework assignments and having phone conference calls.

Administrators and teachers connect with families regularly to monitor student progress, encourage parent involvement in learning, encourage families to take advantage of the district’s Grab and Go Meals program, and offer mental health services to help parents whose families are struggling with feelings of isolation at home.

Nothing can take the place of education in a classroom, especially with such young learners who learn and develop the foundations of social skills and language skills through social interaction with their peers. And, teaching 3- and 4-year-olds online has its challenges, of course, as they are more active than older students and need greater interaction and more variation in learning to maintain their attention.

For example, English Language Learners at Friendship for Tots need support to maintain a trajectory of growth and do not regress in both language and concepts in learning. Friendship for Tots has approached this challenge by providing one-on-one video call lessons and activity completion support with these learners daily for at least 30 minutes, said Serehna Cassanova, Education Director, Friendship for Tots.

But there are many advantages to digital learning at the pre-K level.

“The kids are so much more advanced than we thought,” said Helena Castilla-Byrne, Principal, Our Lady of Victory School, which has 100 students, who now attend virtual Zoom classroom calls for meetings and view recorded lessons on the school’s YouTube channel. “It’s great watching them really pick it up.”

“And, seeing the creativity of our staff,” Assistant Principal Cristina Moreira. “I feel they’ve come up with such unique ways of things that they can incorporate into their Google Classrooms. It’s nice to see.”

Cassanova had a similar assessment of her team.

“The creativity in the learning activities that are being provided for the children is a major advantage,” she said. “The various curriculum supplements. The various ways the children are able to plug into their learning and learn from a distance, including the museum, the zoos, all the virtual experiences they are having.”

Engaging families in the education of their children has also increased as families are more accessible because many people are home.

“The teachers and the assistants are engaging the parents,” Bishop Dr. C. Nathan Edwers, Director, Friendship for Tots, which has 120 students. “Without the engagement of parents, we would not have the success rate we have. We are constantly texting them, we call, do a well-check to see our children are doing well. That is very important because we feel a sense of obligation to ensure that our children are healthy.”

Janette Pereira, Deputy Director, Westchester Community Opportunity Program, said parent involvement is a key advantage at this time. The three locations have a total of 118 of 3- and 4-year-old students with live assignments through Zoom meetings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and other assignments and activities scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“The impact of parent involvement on learning is huge. All the research points to how important that parent piece is, from well before Kindergarten,” Pereira said. “Whereas in our centers the teachers lead the activities, at this time, the parents do so much more – from participating in the Zoom learning sessions to following up through our Parent Portal and giving us important information about their child’s progress. They are tracking their child’s development in terms of social skills, language, motor, and cognitive skills, in collaboration with our WestCOP teachers. And that is really important. Their observations and feedback are critical.”

Dr. Gayle White-Wallace, Director of Pre-K & Special Projects, leads the district’s pre-Kindergarten program. The program offers a well-implemented, evidence-based curriculum taught by highly qualified pre-K teachers and teaching assistants who are specially trained to utilize developmentally appropriate activities, implement standards-based instruction, and build a nurturing classroom environment for all young learners.

“Our community partners are doing excellent work with the early learners and continuing to stimulate and engage them in new and different ways,” Dr. White-Wallace said. “They have stepped up in a big way and are tremendous partners with the school district.”