There are some big changes afoot for the Wilton Public Schools‘ pre-K program that will take effect for the 2017-2018 school year. Not only will the preschool officially move into the new, expanded space built during the Miller-Driscoll Renovation, but there are major academic and programmatic shifts.
Parents of prospective students will have two opportunities to see what’s at work: there’s a Parent Presentation today, Wednesday, Jan. 18 from 10-11 a.m. and an Open House on Thursday, Jan. 19, from 4-5 p.m. for parents and children to visit classrooms and meet teachers. Administrators are eager for Wilton parents to learn more about what’s offered, as many are not aware that the district even has a preschool option that all families can consider.
Most obvious of the changes at first glance is a change in name, from Wilton Preschool Services to Miller-Driscoll Early Learning Center.
“‘Early Learning Center’ just seemed to encompass everything we did. ‘Services’ sounded clinical,” says Bernadette Hess, who has taken on the role as Pre-K PPT coordinator and community liaison. Hess is an educator and Wilton parent who has worked in the schools in different capacities over the last few years–including roles as interim principal at each Cider Mill and, most recently, at Miller-Driscoll.
Among the other major changes planned: growing the program from three classes to four, and lengthening the time all students will attend each day.
The changes started shaping up when a committee was formed in November to begin developing adjustments to the program. Joining Hess on the committee were Patty Terranova, the preschool’s executive secretary; Sharon DeAngelo, assistant director of special education; Kathy Coon, Miller-Driscoll’s new principal; preschool parent Ashley Krauss; Tera Vercellone, occupational therapist; Adrienne Matta, school psychologist; Karen Farber, speech-language pathologist; Melissa Feige, preschool teacher; and Laura Schwemm, Bd. of Education member.
“We started looking at who we are, what we wanted, where we wanted to go. We were looking at this as such an opportunity to make some changes and expand. Currently we have three classrooms and next year our goal is to go to four. We have the potential to go to five the year after,” Hess describes.
Some of the shift was motivated by the move into the new, larger space, starting next year with students enrolled in the 2017-2018 school year. There’s a separate drop-off/pick up area, new classrooms, a new multi-purpose room, new conference room for meetings, and new occupational, speech and physical therapy rooms.
Not only will the number of classes increase but the school day will extend as well.
“Right now the model is 9-11:30 a.m., and some kids stay all day, so for them there’s ‘lunch bunch,’ and some social and play groups from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; then some kids come from 1-3:30 p.m.. Our new model for next year is five days a week is 9 a.m.-1:15 p.m. for everyone. So every child has the opportunity to have lunch and snack at school, every day,” Hess says. “We thought they would be benefit from that socialization skill, to be able to eat together. There will be more continuity, and there won’t be that change in the middle of the day, with some kids leaving, some kids coming in.”
What’s more, the oldest students in the 4-year-old classes will have the option of staying even later two days-a-week until 3:30 p.m..
At heart the core purpose of the preschool remains the same: to offer an integrated preschool program that prides itself on being an inclusive preschool experience, providing individualized learning for all types of learners. Children with age-appropriate skills and children with identified special education needs learn together in a challenging and supportive learning environment.
Hess says that is clearly evident: “This year we have phenomenal classes, with almost 50-50 typical peer mentors and children with IEPs. We’ve had the question about what it means to send your child to school with children who have special needs. The answer is, this is school. This is how it’s going to be for the rest of your school career and life. We all go to school, together.”
The committee revamped the preschool’s vision and mission statements to make sure that those were clearly articulated. Key elements of that included:
- offering a language-rich environment
- fostering kind, inclusive and socially responsible students who demonstrate the virtues of compassion and empathy.
- providing personalized learning experiences
- building the foundation for our students to reach their potential in a safe and nurturing atmosphere.
“We’ve put a lot of thought into planning a program we think is developmentally appropriate for kids, and we’re constantly reflecting on what we’re doing. We think this model is going to be fantastic for our population of 3-4 year olds,” Hess explains.
Hess says what is standout about the program is the “phenomenal support students receive.” The pre-K teachers have dual certification–special education and early childhood degrees. In addition to a lead teacher, each classroom will also have two para-educators, so there will be a total of three adults in each class, with a range of students numbering from 11-15.
“The level of training our teachers have, you can’t beat it. Plus the professionals that come into the class and work with the students–therapists and psychologist, specials teachers.”
A key advantage to having children enrolled in the program, says Hess, is the seamless transition the students experience between preschool and the K-2 years. That starts with the way the pre-K students are able to participate in the same academic and curriculum offerings at Miller-Driscoll.
“This year they’re going to art and music, so Pre-K through 2nd grade are working with the same art and music teachers. If you come in at age 3 you have art and music for five years, that’s really a tremendous asset here,” she says, adding that the preschool students also have phys ed and go to the school’s Library Learning Commons as well.
The preschoolers are also integrated into the larger student community, and benefit from interacting with the bigger kids–and vice versa.
“Everyone comes at the same time–big brothers and sisters, all the grades. We’ve had a 2nd grade class reach out, they want to buddy read to our pre-K. And then to be integrated into the whole building–the preschool had a solo at the holiday sing-along, just like K-2. To go to every PTA program. All the benefits of being at Miller-Driscoll. Talk about coming into kindergarten with confidence–to say, ‘This is my school!’ We see nothing except amazing things happening here,” Hess adds.
Miller-Driscoll’s new principal Kathy Coons sees the big benefit for students who attend the Early Learning Center and move on to Wilton’s K-2: “They’re going to be ahead of the game here.”
Another thing that’s so unique, she notes–preschool and kindergarten teachers have very easy access to one another, with a continuous ability to communicate about students. “A kindergarten teacher has the ability to come back to a preschool teacher to get more information about a student, or go into a class before the 4s move up. We’re going to do more of the 4s students going into the kindergarten classrooms before they transition up. What does a child need to be prepared for kindergarten? We’ve got that covered–we’re here.”
In addition, for children who receive speech and language/OT/PT services, the paraprofessionals are pre-K through 2nd, and can work consistently with the same students over the entire time the students are at M-D, potentially five years. “There’s a lot of continuity–it’s a big change,” says Hess.
Preschool students also have access to the technology in the school, including smart boards and iPad carts. “It’s all part of the integrated Google classroom used in Miller-Driscoll,” Terranova points out. It’s balanced with all of the typical preschool elements, including sensory, gross- and fine-motor materials.
As part of the evolution process, Hess visited area preschools operating as part of public school districts, including Greenwich, Trumbull and Westport; she also participates on the Early Childhood Council at CES (Fairfield County’s Cooperative Educational Services), and was able to get a sense of how Wilton’s program compares as well as see what other elements might fit in Wilton’s program. “There wasn’t another model like ours–there’s all different things out there, but we’re figuring out a way to maximize when kids are at their best,” she says.
Terranova, who has spent 16 of her 22 years with the Wilton School District at the preschool, has watched the program change and grow over that time. “It’s exciting. For me to be a part of it and see how this is making an impact. This is a different model and it will be an effective use of the teaching time and the socialization time, and what preschools need to be–play, social, fun.”
Hess says feedback about the changes from parents of students currently enrolled in the program has been very supportive. “It’s been so affirming and a reflection of the great work that’s done here. It’s great to hear it.”
Ashley Krauss is one of the parents who is really enthusiastic about the changes.
“I have felt so fortunate to send my children to this preschool. I have watched them flourish under the care of the school’s amazing teachers, staff, and paraprofessionals, and am excited that my preschooler will have access to this brand new, fantastic facility and the same specials as students in the older grades, all while continuing to benefit from the positive and nurturing environment that has always been ever-present at the preschool. Looking ahead to kindergarten, I take comfort in knowing that my preschooler will already be familiar with and integrated into the Miller Driscoll community and perfectly prepared for the Kindergarten curriculum.”
Prospective parents will be able to visit classrooms and meet the staff at Thursday’s Open House. Visitors should check in at the Miller-Driscoll main office.
The preschool’s revamped webpage is part of the Miller-Driscoll section on the district website, and parents will see more information there. The school follows the CT Early Learning Development Standards. There is a fee associated with this program for children who do not have IEPs or receive services. For additional information and to place a child’s name on the list for next year, contact Patty Terranova via email or by calling 203.762.8678.