COLUMBIA — Qwaylin Butler, 5, quickly heads to an alphabet carpet at the front of his classroom at Field School and claims his place on the letter "C." His classmates, all 3- to 5-year-olds, sit on the other letters bordering the square carpet. Little legs crossed. Hands in laps.
It's time for morning messages and a greeting song. The messages take the form of drawings on a whiteboard.
The last one is three stick figures connected by plus signs and followed by an equals sign and a question mark. Stick figure + stick figure + stick figure = ?
Teacher Janice Legarsky, known to the children as "Miss Janice," asks them what they think each figure represents. She only calls on those children who are sitting properly and raising their hands.
It's a teaching moment. The question mark is not a symbol most have seen before, so Legarsky explains its use.
"When you ask, 'Will you help me?' you put a question mark at the end," she says.
Preparing the kids for kindergarten by making sure they are familiar with basic school skills is one goal at local Title I preschools. Legarsky teaches a full-day class at Columbia Public Schools’ Field Building, which has most of the district’s preschool classrooms.
These types of interactions and adult support are key to the teaching philosophy at Title I preschools in Columbia, which follow the HighScope curriculum. .
Title I is a federally funded program meant to serve at-risk children and children with various learning or developmental delays.
Not every child eligible for Title I preschool gets in. The waiting list is consistently more than 100 children, according to the program administrator. Those closest to starting school get priority. There are only 630 spots this year.
Parents with children in Title I say they’ve seen big improvements. The students improve their vocabulary. They write better. They pick up after themselves. They express themselves more clearly. They get along better with others. In some way, they are learning skills that set them up for a brighter future.
The importance of this foundational learning has led district Superintendent Chris Belcher to target early childhood education as a key way to close Columbia’s persistent academic achievement gap.
"Kids who go through Title I come into kindergarten OK. The ones who don’t often have less vocabulary and less social and developmental skills," Belcher said. "There’s no intelligence difference, just a difference in environment."
About 60 percent of the families whose children are enrolled in Title I preschool qualify for free and reduced lunch, a measure of poverty. Screening focuses on the child's development and, to some degree, risk factors in their family background.
Every morning, Mary Rook, supervisor of the Title I preschool program, stands outside Field School. She greets many parents by name, high-fives the students and asks how they’re doing.
"You know that lady who stands out front every morning?" asks ReSa McDonald, 30. "She was my preschool teacher."
When Rook opened the first Title I preschool classroom in Columbia in 1987, McDonald was one of the first students. McDonald’s 4-year-old daughter, Paige’Sha Logan, started preschool at Field in early October.
"I really wanted her in all day, but they had an opening for a half day, so I took it because she can go all day next year," McDonald said.
"The quality is excellent whether you’re in a half-day or a full-day" class, Rook said. "What we were really trying to do is accommodate for those families who needed a full day of care. It’s not day care, but it lessens the transitions for kids."
Rook said that most of the 100 or so families on the waiting list want full-day classes.
McDonald is a single parent and also has an 11-month-old daughter, whom McDonald’s aunt watches.
McDonald said she hasn't seen any big improvements or changes yet in her older daughter's abilities. "She has started to sing more, mostly transition songs," McDonald said, referring to the little songs used to help children clean up or switch from one activity to another.
Paige’Sha also works with her uncle, Marcus Mc Donald, to continue learning after she comes home from school. He works with Paige’Sha on her letters using a tablet tracing game for about an hour almost every day.
But at school, Paige’Sha can learn essential social skills and how to collaborate with her peers.
Helping children interact and develop appropriate social skills is all part of the method used in the preschool classes. During Paige’Sha’s class, children were allowed to pick out a scarf to dance with for a special activity.
"Paige'Sha, you may pick out a scarf now," Title I preschool teacher Susan Berrey says, allowing the children seated on a circle carpet at the front of the classroom to get up one by one.
Paige'Sha walks to a basket in the middle of the carpet, grabbing the last scarf in her favorite color, pink.
"But I wanted a pink one," another girl protests.
Paige'Sha has laid her scarf out in front of her and is too busy noticing that her scarf is smaller than the others to hear her distraught classmate.
"Wait, I want a big one," she mumbles to herself.
The classmate grows more and more upset, and Berrey intervenes. "Well, maybe if you pick out a scarf, you can ask Paige'Sha nicely if she would like to trade," she says.
The girl picks out a large, light purple scarf. "Paige'Sha, can we trade?" she asks in a plaintive tone.
Paige'Sha nods and silently offers her scarf to the center of the circle. Both girls scoot back to their places, assess their scarves and smile.
Rook said these types of interactions help teach children how to express their needs and self-regulate emotions. Before these periods of play, children make plans for what they want to do, and afterwards, they evaluate what they actually did.
"The adult support that is being provided during that playtime — the teacher is modeling language, modeling interaction," Rook said.
All preschool teachers in Columbia Public Schools have four-year degrees in early childhood education and a teaching certificate. Instructional aides, who work with the teacher in a team-teaching style, often have degrees in a related field, Rook said.
The experience and knowledge of the teachers, Rook said, leads to better quality.
Transportation is biggest problem
Paige’Sha was in day care for two years before starting preschool, McDonald said, which she thinks helped. McDonald works at a day care and said if Paige’Sha hadn’t been admitted into the preschool program, she would still be sending her daughter to day care, which was somewhat difficult to afford.
"You got to have it so I can work," McDonald said. "I just hope they still have it when my baby is old enough."
McDonald said she usually has a break when her older daughter finishes the half day at Field so she can pick her up.
"The only time it interrupts is in the morning because I have a class at the day care then," McDonald said. "They let me pick her up and drop her off. She’s got to go to school."
Her car recently broke down, so a close family friend who helps drop off and pick up Paige’Sha has been doing it even more than usual.
Some parents walk their children to Field. Or push them in strollers. Or catch a bus. Others, like McDonald, sometimes rely on friends or relatives for a helping hand.
Rook said one reason behind the growing demand for a full-day preschool program is the challenge of transportation. That’s the No. 1 reason families have to drop out of Title I preschool, she said.
"Parents are doing everything they can to get their kids here," Rook said. "Even parents who maybe don’t have any income, maybe have no car, maybe are a single parent with multiple children to get to different schools. They are making really some extreme efforts to get their child here."
There used to be an informal arrangement in which children attending preschool could ride a bus to an elementary school with an older sibling if there was space, Rook said. Efforts to formalize that and improve safety by ensuring those children had car seats, which would take up several spaces, put an end to that arrangement.
"In my next life, when I’m queen of the world, there will be a special bus route just for preschool," Rook said.
While the School District is required to provide transportation for elementary school students, there’s no such requirement for the preschool-age children.
The Columbia Title I preschools use what’s called the HighScope curriculum. This system focuses not just on academic, cognitive and language skills but incorporates life skills such as independence, decision-making and problem solving.
"It is classical, so it has not veered from what is developmentally appropriate, but it has kept pace with changing focus," Rook said. "That curriculum is adaptable to new research about brain development, new research about how children learn to read and write."
The HighScope curriculum was the method used in one of the most well-known studies of the long-term effects of early childhood education, the Perry Preschool Project. It showed positive outcomes including higher incomes, lower chances of being arrested, greater educational attainment and greater likelihood of owning a home.
Rook said one misconception she sometimes encounters with parents is the difference between day care and preschool. In preschool, everything is intentional and moves toward the goals of teaching skills to children, Rook said.
"The preschool is a very structured, high quality, systematic program to provide children with additional foundational experiences," Rook said. "I think there is sometimes a misconception that they’re just babies and they’re just playing, and I think people overlook or are not fluent in what the value of play is."
During activities in the classroom, a teacher and instructional aide provide direct support for children to learn how to interact with each other. Instead of stepping in and solving a conflict themselves, the adult will ask questions to help the children express themselves and "play" with others.
‘A great parent and a terrible parent’
This interactive support was key for April Bass’ son, Everett, who now goes to kindergarten.
At the time, Bass and her husband, Jamey Bass, were both graduate students at MU. When Everett was younger, they arranged their schedules so someone would always be home with him.
The Basses planned to have three children, but a breast cancer diagnosis when Everett was 14 months old made that impossible. April Bass went into remission when her son was about 2. Around that time, she and her husband started to have concerns about his social interactions.
"He was only getting interaction with grad students," April Bass said. "That became a concern for us, but being grad students it was impossible to afford anything substantive."
When the Basses took Everett to community events or the park, he didn’t know quite how to interact with other children.
"We noticed that his ability to appropriately socialize was limited," April Bass said. "Instead of going up and saying, 'Hello, my name is Everett, do you want to play?' he would just poke them."
After hearing about the Title I preschool from Jamey Bass’s co-worker, Everett went through the screening process. April Bass said it was strange because while he had no problems with most areas, he did have trouble socially.
"It made me feel like a great parent and a terrible parent at the same time," she said.
The improvement once Everett started a full-day program at Field was instant, she said. He began talking with friends he made at school, and his behavior changed for the better at parks and events.
"He had all of the social tools that he needed," April Bass said. "He doesn’t have any of the social inadequacies we were concerned about."
The experience helped prepare Everett for kindergarten, she said.
Assisting the transition
Constance Childs said the experience of attending the Title I preschool definitely benefited her older daughter, Cassidy.
"She’s really doing very well. She’s one of the leaders in the classroom," Childs said. "I did see a quality improvement with her learning, her writing, her speech, the kinds of words she was using, recognition of concepts like square, triangle."
Constance and Ron Childs have two daughters. Cassidy, 6, qualified for the Title I preschool program. But their younger daughter, 4-year-old Reagynn, did not. Reagynn attends Latter House Childcare Center, which is affiliated with Latter House Kingdom Ministries. Cassidy attended it before going to preschool.
Constance said the transition from the Latter House day care to preschool was not difficult for Cassidy because she was used to the classroom setting and having a routine. Before Latter House, the two girls went to a home day care where the provider home-schooled her child. Children of different ages were in one big room, and there was less structure.
"It probably would have been harder to do that transition from the home day care," Constance said.
Ron said he was surprised Reagynn did not qualify for Title I preschool. He said he thought it might be because she was more awake and talkative than her sister was during the screening.
"We didn’t take (Cassidy) there with the intent of her being half asleep, she was just tired. It just happened, and she didn’t want to answer anything," Ron said.
But Rook said not answering questions could also mean help is needed.
"You may know everything on the test, but if you can’t tell us, you need to come to preschool and learn how to do that," Rook said. "That’s a skill as well."
Labea Butler, 31, said her son, Qwaylin, has also improved his skills while attending the Title I preschool at Field.
He has done so well there that she is not looking forward to him starting kindergarten. She said the teacher and staff members have been wonderful in helping her son.
"He is 100 percent different," Butler said. "He did not like people at all, not even family members. He is much more open and friendly than before."
Back in Qwaylin's classroom, Legarsky explains what a question mark is used for and then goes on to tell her students that it represents a choice for them: What reward will they want if they follow classroom expectations?
"I love how Qwaylin raised his hand," Legarsky says to the children, who have erupted into chatter. Asked what the reward should be, Qwaylin smiles and speaks up. "A pancake party!"
Options are debated. Pancake party? Popsicle party? Pajama party? Eventually, Legarsky asks for a vote, and the class decides on a Popsicle party.
Legarsky said this exercise is part of the Positive Behavior Support method, which was started at the preschool level and has spread upward through classrooms at Columbia Public Schools. It provides an incentive for good behavior.
Qwaylin has a speech therapist and has been tested for autism but was not diagnosed with it, Butler said. On the one hand, he requires some additional attention, but he also has to be around other children. Butler said she’s had difficulty getting day care centers to understand his particular needs.
"I was about ready to quit my job to take care of him because the day care center was not working out because they didn’t understand his needs," Butler said. "I was blessed with the Title I program — he was in it last year and this year."
Despite the support and improvement for Qwaylin in Title I, Butler is concerned he might backslide in kindergarten.
"He has improved so much. I don’t want him to go backwards at all," Butler said. "He is being more social, getting over his fears of people and little things; they really let him do it when he’s ready. They don’t push him."
After the morning ritual of the greeting circle, it’s time for a large group activity. Emphasizing that she will hand out two pieces of wax paper only to "friends" — what the teachers call the children — who are sitting properly, Legarsky and the instructional aide begin to distribute the paper.
Large group provides an opportunity to practice large (or gross) motor skills. "Wax paper skates," Legarsky says. "They work best on the carpet, friends."
She demonstrates a shuffling slide on two pieces of wax paper.
Qwaylin is the first to venture off the carpets in the room and onto the slick tile floor, sliding his feet quickly along and tracing a path around shelves with boxes of toys and art supplies.
The children catch on quickly and a controlled chaos ensues, with 15 preschoolers slip-sliding on the carpet and the tiled floor.
Reporter Natalie Cheng contributed to this article.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.