The number of preschool students that qualify with special needs in Kodiak has increased 350% in the past four years, according to Kim Saunders, assistant director of Special Services in the Kodiak Island Borough School District.
The preschool program has grown from one classroom to six in the last eight years, she said.
Despite the need for prekindergarten programs, which help children 3 to 5 years old learn the behavioral and emotional skills needed to perform well in school, early childhood education programs in Kodiak are underfunded, understaffed and undervalued, Saunders said.
The increase in students with special needs could be due to a large range of issues, from technology use, to struggles in the community, Saunders said.
“From our data from the kindergarten profile assessment is that social emotional skills are the biggest area of need. So our kindergartners are coming without the self-regulation to do school,” Saunders said.
Without preschool, many students begin elementary school struggling to follow directions, sustain their attention to a task, sit in a group, and focus on the teacher, she said.
“We are seeing a decrease in (the social-emotional) skill set. So preschool helps make sure that kids get those things,” Saunders said.
To gain these skills, children need to connect to each other and adults and play with others.
Preschool provides a place for those kinds of structured interactions, Saunders said.
“Even in two and a half hours a day, (children) come and they play, and they might struggle to share, but that’s OK, we get through it,” Saunders said. “And then by 5, they are able to sit through a story, or they are able to sustain their attention.”
In Alaska there is no funding for universal preschool, unless students qualify for special education, said Saunders, who was born and raised in Kodiak and has taught special education for 18 years.
Thus, the Kodiak School District’s preschools have “blended” classrooms in which students with special needs attend alongside peers without special needs.
“Blending is a best practice in early childhood education,” Saunders said. “Everybody does better. The typical kids do better because they learn about empathy, being a good friend and social skills that you need.”
Additionally, students with “exceptionalities” do better because they learn from what they see modeled in their peers, especially in regard to speech and language, she said.
Because funding is limited — money for the program comes from the borough’s general fund — kids without special education needs must pay $125 per month.
“We are always recruiting for our peer models and 4-year-olds. We encourage people to apply: it’s $125 a month, four days a week and two and a half hours a day. There’s a morning section and an afternoon section.”
Kodiak’s early childhood education program has three major goals: to improve communication, independence, and to improve social skills, Saunders said.
The three borough preschool sites are located at East Elementary School, Peterson Elementary School and the central office.
While both East Elementary and Peterson have blended preschool classrooms, the third site at the borough’s central office, is unique: It is a grant-funded classroom for students who need preschool, but do not qualify for special education, and thus are not covered.
“This grant is for children who the team identifies needs to have preschool for whatever reason. And now, because of the grant, we are able to offer them preschool,” Saunders said.
The Kodiak school district was awarded the grant in November. The district opened its grant-funded program last spring and will start the program again this fall.
The two-year grant funds other programs in addition to the classroom, including a family-training resource center that offers classes on behavior, nutrition and other early childhood education; and the development of a “career pathway for high school students who are interested in early childhood as a career path, teaching as a career path, or who want to be a parent someday,” Saunders said.
The grant for the extra classroom also will allow the program to install bathrooms in the preschools and develop a two-way mirror system, so high school students, parents, and others can observe the classroom in session.
“Our kindergarten teachers in the district will say they always know who came from the developmental preschool: (those children) are more ready to do school,” Saunders said. “It’s not that they have all the traditional knowledge of letters, but they are ready for all the routines.”
She said these needs cannot be met for everyone because there isn’t the capacity, whether it be space and funding for classrooms, or paying competitive salaries for early childhood educators.
Saunders said there is a lot of support at a district level from both the school board and leadership for early childhood programs.
The school board and superintendent “support a grant being written and a grant being funded,” Saunders said. Additionally, “they hire high-quality, well-trained educators with special education degrees, so the work we are doing is the best that we can do. And that comes from the top.”