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Pre-K program Highlands’ ‘best-kept secret’

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Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Grandview Upper Elementary pre-K teacher Marian Ayres works with her students in Tarentum on Monday, June 5, 2017.
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Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Grandview Upper Elementary Pre-K teacher Marian Ayres (right) and pre-K program aide Tina Gearhard welcome students Monday morning June 5, 2017.

Getting a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds to sit down for any length of time is hard.

Giving them the foundation they need to succeed in kindergarten is even harder. Yet, somehow, Marian Ayres manages to do both.

Ayres’ pre-K class at Grandview Upper Elementary in the Highlands School District recently scored 95 percent — an exemplary score — on the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale. The scale, which is internationally recognized, focuses on the broad range of needs for children 3 to 4, including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, and health and safety.

Ayres’ students are busy throughout their half-day classes. They engage in activities such as practicing the alphabet, writing their names, counting to 100, learning new vocabulary, singing, dancing and, of course, playing.

Learning through play is highly emphasized by pre-K Counts, a state grant program that funds Highlands’ pre-K program and is shown to have significant benefits.

“Assessments have shown kids increase early literacy and early math skills and show greater preparation for kindergarten when they attend a high quality pre-K program,” said Suzann Morris, deputy secretary of the state Department of Education’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning.

To raise more money for other enriching activities, Ayres, who has been with the district 19 years and has been teaching pre-K for eight years, also applies for grants.

“Applying for the grants can take a lot of time, but the children are worth it,” Ayres said.

This year Ayres received two grants from Constellation Energy for $500 each. These grants have been used to get kids out of the classroom and on four field trips to various areas in the Alle-Kiski Valley:

• On May 5, the class visited Harrison Hills Park in Harrison, toured the Environmental Learning Center there, planted flowers and later planted a dogwood tree near the outdoor play area of Grandview Elementary.

• On May 12, the class visited the Harrison Branch of Community Library of Allegheny Valley, where they donated more than $300 worth of hardcover books and got to hear a librarian read a story.

• On May 19, the class went to the movies at the Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer to see “Smurfs: the Lost Village.”

• On May 25, the class visited the Highland Hose Volunteer Fire Company fire station in Tarentum, where they learned about fire safety, got to experience fire company equipment and ate lunch with firefighters.

Cultural enrichment is another major part of Ayres’ class, which often features guest speakers that teach the kids about cultures around the world. One speaker was Ayres’s own mother, Harumi Wilkins of Washington County. Wilkins was born in Japan and came into class dressed in a kimono to teach the kids about Japan.

The class also has occasional helpers, such as Donna Kosmack of West Deer, whose grandson, Abel Dickson of Tarentum, is in Ayres’s class. Kosmack, known to the students as “Grammy Donna,” has baked cookies with the kids in class and provided treats on other occasions.

Because Grandview also houses grades three through five, Ayres said the older siblings of the pre-K students will come in and help out, too.

It’s that interaction with the community that gives added value to the pre-K program.

“Ms. Ayres collaboration with parents and the community have helped make the program successful,” said Shawn Bennis, principal of Fawn Elementary School and pre-K through fourth grade supervisor for the Highlands School District.

Best kept secret

Ayres said the biggest problem with her pre-K program, and many others, is that not enough people know about it.

“I would say that we are probably Highlands’ best kept secret,” Ayres said.

Because of this, enrollment of kids who are most likely to benefit from pre-K — 4-year-olds — isn’t high enough, so 3-year-olds are enrolled, too. Those children are strongly encouraged to complete the program again when they turn 4 so they are ready to move up to kindergarten.

Ayres knows a lot of people in the Valley send their young children to private day cares or private pre-K programs, which can cost parents thousands of dollars.

But Grandview’s pre-K program, and many others at public school districts across the state, is paid for by the school district mostly through the Pre-K Counts grant.

That money also provides children with backpacks, school supplies and books and a hot breakfast or a hot lunch.

Transportation to the pre-K program, though, remains the parents’ responsibility.

Bennis said he put forward a proposal to Highlands’ administrators to provide transportation for the pre-K kids next year, but it is too early to know if the proposal will be approved.

Bennis said that they would like to expand the number of children they are reaching in the next couple years from 40 to 120.

However, that kind of expansion won’t be possible until Highlands applies for the Pre-K Counts grant again next year and there is no guarantee they will be granted enough money to expand that much.

From around 2007 to 2011, there were six half-day pre-K classes totalling 120 students at Highlands. Four were funded through the federal Title I program and two others were funded by the Pre-K Counts grant.

However, after budget cuts in 2011, Highlands lost much of its Title I funding, forcing them to drop four classes and cut down to only 40 students.

The Pre-K Counts Grant

Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts grant is what makes programs like the one at Highlands possible. The grant was created in 2007 to provide high quality pre-K programs throughout the state.

Morris said about 18,000 kids in Pennsylvania currently benefit from programs funded by Pre-K Counts.

Governor Tom Wolf has proposed a $65 million expansion of the Pre-K Counts program for next school year. This expansion would allow about 7,400 additional children to attend a high quality pre-school program, like the one at Grandview.

Leif Greiss is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4681 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Leif_Greiss.

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