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A new approach to early education

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Preschool-- where friendly debate centers around topics like Legos. But for 4-year-olds Elizabeth, Mateo and William, they've learned to keep the conversation kind, even at this age. Making friends is part of the curriculum at the Orleans Central Early Childhood program.

"Once you put those universal practices in place the difference is amazing. You see them regulating themselves. Imagine that? Sometimes as adults we don't have it yet, but they learn techniques," said Dina DeSena, a Vermont Early Multi-Tiered Support Systems trainer.

Three-, 4-, and 5-year-olds attend the preschool either half days or full days. It's unique in that it also incorporates Head Start programming for all students, not just kids from low-income families, all under the same roof.

"This is really a model program where we are blending federal dollars and state and local pre-K dollars... to provide a comprehensive program for all the children and families located here," said Linda Michniewicz of Northeast Kingdom Community Head Start and Early Head Start.

In addition to academics, like literacy, math, science and social studies, the pilot program gets qualifying families access to public services, like fuel or food assistance. Plus health care, including mental health care, is provided. One-stop help for parents whose kids go here.

"Well, we are trying to give children a head start," Michniewicz said.

And it's not only students learning here. Teachers are teaching teachers.

"Lots goes on here," said Julie Lavine, the lead preschool teacher at OCSU.

This is one of five preschools across the state where educators are getting specific training in social and emotional development in kids. And now, it's been picked as a demonstration site for other educators to come here to see what's going on.

"I am so proud of this program," DeSena said. "I can't even tell you how proud I am of the program."

Teachers go through specific training to deal with three groups of kids-- those who learn the basics easily, those who need a little more help and those who need intense support-- to get them ready for class. It's called Early Multi-Tiered System of Support.

"They're learning social skills, they're learning academics and learning how to be part of a classroom," Lavine explained. "Which we just think is key in these children being successful not only here at school, but in life."

"I've noticed a big change in Alexis," Grandmother Wendy Sicard said.

And families get homework, too-- tips to keep the learning going at home.

"There's a lot they learn, so by the time they get to kindergarten, they're already starting to read," Sicard said.

"Just all of these problem-solving skills that they are learning at this age, that they will be good for all the rest of their lives," DeSena said.

The teacher training will be ongoing for years, but education officials say it's already proven so successful; the programming is already being tested elsewhere, too.

"What has happened here with this training is phenomenal," DeSena said. "We already use it. We already bring new teachers to see this is what it looks like."

The Barton site was picked as a pilot project for a few reasons: teachers here have worked together for a long time, because the preschool incorporates Head Start and because it's so rural. It will be an ongoing experiment. Researchers will follow kids like Elizabeth, Mateo and William, since they're likely to attend the same school through 12th grade to see how well it works.

"So now we get to see the product going from the very beginning until the end," DeSena said.

So far, it's getting high marks.

There are 63 students at the preschool in Barton. But it can serve up to 68. There's a second preschool in the district in Albany. Together they have a $607,000 budget.

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