Pre-K Explained

Pre-K Classes Are NOT Watered Down Kindergarten
Posted on 08/26/2021
This is the image for the news article titled Pre-K Classes Are NOT Watered Down KindergartenThe Voluntary Pre-K initiative, signed into law in 2005, provides Tennessee's three- and four-year-old children who are at-risk an opportunity to develop school readiness skills (pre-academic and social skills). Those skills include an introduction to colors, numbers, letters, sounds that will lay a foundation for later phonics work, taking turns, working and playing with others, and much more.

The key, note experts, is that the students are engaged in activities which are developmentally appropriate.

“Pre-K should not be a watered down kindergarten classroom,” explains Karen Fowler, the Weakley County Pre-K Families School Consultant. “We don’t approach pre-K by providing ‘easier’ activities that are offered in kindergarten. Instead, we look at what’s developmentally appropriate for each child, as all children do not develop at the same pace, and we provide experiences to encourage their thinking. For pre-K, it’s more about the ‘process’ rather than the ‘product.’

“By providing a high-quality learning environment, children practice various skills, in areas in which they choose to play, and with the friends they want to play with, and teachers provide support by asking questions which promote high order thinking.”

Fowler was the first to take the consultant role she now holds when Weakley County Schools created the position nine years ago and has seen both the preschoolers and the program change.

She says her main goal is “to help the first experience with school be a positive one.” To do so, she works closely with the children and their families and supports teachers.

“For the children, the biggest piece is social and emotional development,” notes Fowler. “We start developing a vocabulary of feeling for them – happy, mad, sad, glad. We get them acclimated to the school structure, the routine and rules.”

Each classroom follows the state-mandated early developmental standards which encompasses learning letters, developing fine motor skills, counting, talking in complete sentences, retelling a story, drawing pictures from a story, and identifying colors.

“We see where they are and if they already know something, we move on,” she explains.

Nearing a decade in her role, she underscores that the need for a program for at-risk children is greater than ever before.

“Students come to us with a lot of challenges. Some need food. Some are in need of a stable, nurturing environment. Some are homeless. Some families move from town to town and therefore school to school,” she points out.

In light of such need, Fowler easily refers to her role in ministerial terms. “It’s my calling,” she shares.

To meet this spectrum of needs, Fowler may turn to the community. She says that Weakley County is “blessed” with several sources to supply food boxes when necessary. She also relies on her nearly 30 years of experience to address deficits. With a master’s in Child and Family Studies and one in Education and a career path that included serving as the Childcare Licensing Supervisor for childcare facilities in northwest Tennessee, she has extensive training to draw on.

“I try to connect with the family is some sort of fashion, especially if I know there is a need,” she explained. “And, while home visits weren’t an option last year, I make myself available to families. Sometimes I offer resources and sometimes it’s simply reassurance and a listening ear.”

Though she offices at Dresden Elementary, daily she can be found in one of the six classrooms. More than an observer of the room dynamics, she can be found offering a needed calming touch, one-on-one instruction, and serving as an additional resource to the teacher. If needed, she stays after class to meet with family members with concerns or further individual work with a child.

She also maintains a Facebook group for parents and teachers, sharing information that was included in students’ folders and photos that explain what is happening in the captured moment and why.

She notes that all the pre-K teachers have a means for communicating with parents either via social media or another application.

Another resource for families is the toolkit that was introduced last year to continue learning at home in case of Covid-related quarantines and has been continued because of its success. The Playdoh, crayons, scissors, and glue, along with other items sent home throughout the year, give families the opportunity to build on the fine motor skill development started in the classroom.

With such an emphasis on what is developmentally appropriate, Fowler and the pre-K faculty are concerned about what will happen if pre-K classes do not meet the enrollment numbers required by the state.

In previous years, the not-yet-filled classrooms would begin accepting students who did not meet the “at risk” criteria. By state guidelines, that is not an option this year.

The state allows 20 days to enroll income-eligible students and if all positions are not filled the district can then open the spots to children who are four years of age with disabilities, students identified as English Learners (EL), in state custody, or who are screened and identified as educationally at-risk, have been in the Tennessee Early Intervention Program (TEIS) or Even Start program; and those that meet the requirements set forth by the Community Pre-K Advisory Council (C-PAC) for students considered unserved or underserved.

If classes still fall short, three-year-olds would then be considered.

“We are going to have to be mindful of how we teach if we have a mixed class,” notes Fowler. “Those three-year-olds are just leaving toddlerhood, and even though their bodies look like a preschooler their minds are still much like a two-year-old.”

Families with four-year-olds who may qualify for the pre-K program will have a second opportunity to enroll their children for this year on September 8. At that time, an interest survey will be conducted with families of three-year-olds. All should plan on stopping by their local elementary school for more information.

Greenfield pre-K with Karen Fowler
Karen Fowler, the Weakley County Pre-K Families School Consultant, is one of the six pre-K classrooms throughout the county every day. Seen here with Greenfield pre-K students led by teacher Julie Arnold and educational assistant Bailey Daniel, Fowler is helping with an activity for learning numbers.