University of Alabama First Class Pre-K program launching at Gadsden Center

February 11, 2021 chris
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The University of Alabama’s Early Learning Initiative leaders Dr. Cailin Kerch (left) and Dr. Alison Hooper (right) present at the National Association for the Education of Young Children Conference in Nashville in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Dr. Alison Hooper/UA.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The University of Alabama’s College of Education just introduced a new opportunity for families throughout Etowah County.

In January of 2021, the UA Early Learning Initiative (ELI) commenced at the University’s Gadsden Center, providing local children with a First Class Pre-K program just around the corner.

ELI sprouted from UA’s strong working relationship with the Alabama State Department of Early Childhood Education as a convergence of interest in finding an appropriate location for an intentionally high-quality First Class Pre-K program. That location manifested in UA’s Gadsden Center, a campus with a rich history in training education leaders throughout the state. With the recent occurrence of empty space at the Gadsden Center and several classes moving online, UA brainstormed the best method to utilize the available space.

The result was ELI moving downtown.

Dean of UA’s College of Education Dr. Peter Hlebowitsh approached UA clinical assistant professor of elementary and early childhood education Dr. Cailin Kerch and assistant professor of early childhood education Dr. Alison Hooper about leading the project.

“When someone approaches you and says, ‘There’s this potential, there’s this big idea to serve the Gadsden community at the Gadsden Center and if we secure grants, there’s funding for a renovation – do you want to help us serve children for free?’” said Kerch. “Alison and I could not say no to that. When we were approached, it was an absolute ‘yes.’ Let’s do this. Of course, we wish we were closer, but we’ve made lots of trips up to Gadsden and we really are falling in love with the community.”

From 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., children flourish in a playful environment designed to encourage all developmental areas such as literacy, math, science, social studies, arts, physical development and social and emotional development. Regardless of income, all children receive a free lunch during the school day. In addition, children receive health screenings for vision, dental, physical and hearing under the First Class Pre-K standards.

One of ELI’s core principles resides with family engagement. Hooper describes families as experts on their own children, with she and Kerch valuing the beneficial knowledge they can gleam from understanding family relationships and dynamics. Rather than parents simply dropping off and picking up their children in the mornings and afternoons, the pair envision the program as a welcoming atmosphere that encourages family involvement.

“Involving families starts with having a welcoming atmosphere,” said Hooper. “That looks a little different right now when we’re not able to do things face-to-face, but we really value two-way communication. [A two-way conversation is] not just teachers telling families, ‘You need to do this,’ or ‘please come do this,’ but asking for their input and trying to make lots of different opportunities for families, finding out what they want to learn about and helping them get connected to information.”

For some families, visiting the physical classroom to volunteer or observe might fit their schedules, while other families might discover alternative methods of participation. The goal is to shift the narrative of parental involvement in the school system, creating a new standard where parents feel comfortable engaging with educational partners regarding their child’s learning.

“We really value community families as partners,” said Kerch. “We want to know what your beliefs and goals are, what are your cultural values and how we can help the child walk through the educational process, because we’re only going to be involved with that family and child for one year. But, we want to make sure that we’re really building the capacity that’s already there with parents, and strengthening them as they move through the Gadsden City Schools, Etowah County Schools or surrounding areas school systems.”

Kerch offered a recent situational example of family involvement within the classroom setting. She reflected on a child whose family owns a hair salon, noting a discussion she and Hooper had with their fellow teachers about embedding the family business into play spaces in a way that connects the business to math, literacy and language while valuing the child’s family environment.

As a part of the state funded First Class Pre-K program, ELI follows guidelines for classrooms to follow with a play-based hands-on philosophy. While bright, primary colors are often found in early learning centers, ELI’s classrooms will adopt a more neutral setting, veering from plastic play materials to create a more natural and earthy environment.

“Just like for us as adults, places we find calming and pleasant to be in, it’s really the same for children,” said Hooper. “[We’re incorporating] neutral colors, wood, real things, stones, branches, plants and more natural lighting. There’s evidence that when there are a lot of colors and print on the walls, it’s overwhelming for children and it’s harder for them to concentrate to pay attention, to figure out what they’re supposed to be focusing on. We’re hoping it will just be a relaxing, beautiful and pleasant place to be.”

Multi-faceted materials like stones as opposed to traditional numbered block kits allow children to become engaged in different manners, granting teachers freedom to use the materials in new and innovative ways depending on the lesson or day. Hooper and Kerch truly want the space to reflect the children it serves, hoping families will bring materials from their own homes and photos to create a comforting atmosphere. No teacher desk exists in either of ELI’s classrooms – the teacher will never be stagnant but always moving throughout the classroom, and communicating with the students.

A lab booth with a two-way window rests in its designated spot in the classrooms, where Kerch and Hooper hope educators will create observation schedules for other teachers in First Class Pre-K programs, coaches or families to observe the educational practices in play. Microphones will be incorporated in the classroom as well, so observers can hear audio of lessons.

For Hooper and Kerch, no other profession seemed the perfect fit quite like teaching. As the child often being told to sit down and be quiet, Kerch wondered why children were not always given a space to fill their curiosities, talk and ask questions. Teaching kindergarten and first grade led Kerch into administration then UA, where she discovered new ways of educating children while allowing them to express their wonder and understanding of the world.

“Having this opportunity [at the Gadsden Center] to extend that for professional development is really something that moves me and Alison,” said Kerch. “Not only are our intrinsic passions, but our research areas are surrounding either teacher beliefs or play-based practices or supporting teachers in the classroom or families. This work really culminates all of those things we value as people, teachers and researchers.”

As a previous kindergarten teacher herself, Hooper realized that a vast majority of her students seemed unprepared academically, even in their first year of schooling. As a new teacher still gaining experience and learning herself, Hooper pondered how students could be behind when they were just getting started. This thought motivated Hooper to pursue graduate school, where she gained greater understanding about children’s development and families. She shifted her thinking to a research mindset that acknowledges the wonderful aspects of the families and students that enter the classroom and works with those qualities to create the most successful educational path for children.

“In this program [at the Gadsden Center] we hope to be able to continue some research there to learn more about good teaching,” said Hooper. “In this particular job, I just love that I got to combine doing the research, learning, teaching new teachers and also the service aspect of actually doing work out in the communities. It’s a wonderful combination.”

Although COVID-19 has altered the current classroom setting, with students learning via Zoom, Hooper and Kerch noted that ELI’s program (which follows the Creative Curriculum) still tries to align with the same activities children and teachers might do face-to-face. ELI’s acting teacher, Melissa Walton, reads books to the six children presently enrolled and sings songs with them, asking questions about their home and families.

Through the Creative Curriculum, families have access to an app that offers playful activities appropriate for young children and caregivers. For example, if children read a book that discusses emotions, they can translate what they learn into their surroundings with activities designed for their home. They could find other books and examine the faces of the characters, determining whether they think they are happy or sad, or make up a story with their caregiver about someone experiencing an emotion.

“Even though we’re not at school, we can still bring play-based things at home and help that caregiver know what to do,” said Kerch. “Being stuck at home during the pandemic is really taxing on the caregiver, because there is no place to take the child, and they’re grasping at how to keep children engaged or busy.”

Prior to ELI’s launch, Kerch and Hooper met with different representatives throughout the City of Gadsden to touch base with the community and discover if this program was wanted and needed in the area. Stakeholders from The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County, United Way, Family Success Center and mayor’s office communicated with Kerch and Hooper, assessing the needs of the community. A large waitlist for Pre-K age children ensured that ELI would not pull children from other programs, but provide another resource for local families.

“We’ve just had a lot of positive feedback so far and excitement that we’re here,” said Hooper. “It’s been exciting for all of us – communities and families and us – to have something that’s in Gadsden that is connected to the University. There seem to be wonderful active community organizations in Gadsden…that’s something we’ve noticed so far. We’re looking forward to partnering with them. We’ve talked a little with the public library and United Way, and I think they’ll be wonderful partners and we’ll all be able to work together.”

As an inclusive program, ELI provides handicap accessible spaces with ramps and bathrooms that accommodate all children – an aspect of the program that is extremely important to Kerch and Hooper. Kerch described the program’s mission manifesting in three prongs: teaching, which serves young children, research, which increases the scientific body of knowledge concerning children and families in Gadsden’s small population, then outreach and service, which supports and extends the benefits to the public within Alabama, but also to teachers in the early childhood community.

“At our core, we are trying to provide high quality, early education experience to children and families in the Gadsden community and surrounding areas,” said Hooper. “With that, I think one thing that sets us apart is our mission to serve the larger field of early care and education through providing support and resources to other teachers, programs and people who are interested in early childhood. They can come, get training, observe and see those high quality practices in action.

“We have a piece in our mission about being a site for research as well – that’s really important to us to keep learning about how to improve ourselves, improve our own practices and figure out what works best for children and teachers, and help the state and First Class Pre-K program as they’re making decisions. If they’re thinking about offering this new training program, we can potentially try those things out at our program and get some feedback for them.”

The pair’s goal is to maintain that quality education at no cost to families. Hooper and Kerch are currently pursuing different grant funds to create a professional development bay of options and keep ELI a free service for four-year-olds. Kerch and Hooper envision expanding ELI to serve infants, toddlers and three-year-olds, as well as after-school programming. They are investigating grant options for these expansions as well as planning to partner with local resources to develop the program further.

Through their passion for education and dedication to the betterment of children, Kerch and Hooper partner with UA to provide an invaluable resource for families throughout Etowah County. Their enthusiasm and excitement for the future of ELI proves that this program is only the beginning of a broader initiative designed to serve children, parents and teachers for years to come. As they work alongside individuals rooted in the community, they look forward to building the program and nurturing an appreciation for education and life in each child that enrolls.

“If I could have one dream, it would be for the area (Gadsden City and Etowah County) to know we exist and know we’re here to serve,” said Kerch. “If they have a four-year-old interested in our program, enroll. We’ll have a lottery that is open right now, and we’ll do selections in March. To see a full roster is my current hope, then to watch the Center be a bustling place to serve families and children, that’s my secondary hope. After that, we can really accomplish the rest of our mission. But first and foremost, let’s fill it up. Let’s get those children and families in the Center, then we can really watch the program grow and know what the Gadsden community needs.”

“My dream is that we are really connected to the community and in-tune and responsive for what families want and what local teachers are saying they need a little bit of help with,” said Hooper. “Whatever that might be, we’re able to stay connected to what’s going on, what people want and what people need. Then, we’re able to find ways to partner with them to offer support. We have access to resources because we’re at the University. We have some of those special kinds of privileges that not everyone has at their fingertips, so we want to be able to utilize that in a way that is helpful and welcoming to teachers, families and children in the Gadsden area.”

ELI is currently hiring a permanent professional to teach its classes. For more information concerning career opportunities, enrollment, or the program, contact Dr. Cailin Kerch at cjkerch@ua.edu, Dr. Alison Hooper at alhooper2@ua.edu or visit alprek.asapconnected.com.