Southwest preschoolers now in new building

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Southwest preschoolers Avery Brinkman, left, and Domenick Sierra, right, draw on chalkboards in the district's new preschool building. Preschooler Gracelyn Sanders, center, looks at Brinkman's drawing. Jason Johnston

Free preschool for children 4-5 years old has 23 enrolled

Southwest School District's new 1,296-square-foot preschool building opened last week.

The district started another preschool program on Dec. 15.

Angela Pendergraft, left, preschool paraprofessional at Southwest School District, reads to preschooler Andy Day. The new preschool program started Dec. 15. Jason Johnston

Classes were initially held at Southwest Elementary before moving into the modular building on March 16. The current enrollment is 23 students spread across the morning and afternoon sessions.

Children who are four or five years old and living in the district can enroll, and the district does not charge, said Jeff Payne, elementary school principal. The district accepts eligible children anytime during the school year, and the preschool follows the district calendar. The parents or guardians have to transport their children to the preschool because the district does not provide transportation.

In late September, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the district's Missouri Preschool Program grant application, he said. The five-year grant was initially $80,000, but DESE increased it to about $130,000.

Rachel Stephenson, preschool teacher at Southwest School District, helps her students, L. J. Epperson, left, and Isaac Wormington, put together blocks. The students moved into the 1,296-square-foot modular building on March 16. Jason Johnston

"With the grant, we can take up to 20 [children] in the morning and a maximum of 20 in the afternoon," Payne said. "So, we can can serve up to 40 kids in a day. However, just as of right now, we only have 23. We hope to grow that number as the years go on because I would love to reach our maximum.

"So, it could be 40 potential kids coming into kindergarten that will get a little more social skills, learn how to cooperate, and they will come in prepared with knowing how to hold a pencil, using scissors. We have

kindergarteners who come in that really don't know which hand they write with -- which is their dominant hand -- and know any alphabet letters or numbers."

Children must be five years old by Aug. 1 before they can enter kindergarten. Therefore, some of the students may remain at the preschool, he said.

"Since Dec. 15, we've seen huge growth, especially in social skills with the kids," Payne said. "We heard a lot of positives from the parents.

"With that grant, we couldn't build something. We could only lease [a building] or utilize a room in our building. But since we only had one empty room, we didn't feel like it was big enough, and we couldn't do as much."

The district leases the modular, which was built and transported from Alabama, said Payne, who thinks the district will pay off the lease in five years. The foundation construction started in November. The building was delivered around Christmas break. The district then built a separate, age-appropriate playground with an approximate size of 2,193.5 square feet.

The building has classroom space that is 730 square feet, Payne said. The grant stipulated the space had to be at least 35 square feet per child. The building has an office, a storage room, restrooms and a kitchenette. The fenced-in playground has a circular concrete path for the children's five tricycles and soft mulch under the playground set. Sod was recently laid down in the area.

Rachel Stephenson is the preschool teacher, and Angela Pendergraft helps her as the classroom's paraprofessional.

Stephenson, who grew up in Purdy, said she started in November. In 2011, she graduated with a degree in elementary and early childhood education at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. She taught first grade in the Neosho School District for three years.

"This is what I want to do," she said. "I always wanted to teach preschool. When this opportunity arose, it was perfect. In preschool, you're teaching them all the skills that they need, how to stand in line, how to wash their hands, how to use manners, how to interact with each other. For some kids, this is their first experience at school and maybe playing with other kids their age.

"We use a creative curriculum. It teaches them career play, social skills, letters, alphabet, math concepts and phonemic awareness."

The children are learning their classroom expectations, Stephenson said.

"They have adjusted real well," she said. "They enjoy their new building. It's a bigger space, more room as well."

Pendergraft said she is on her 11th year with the district. Before she became a paraprofessional with the new program, she was a paraprofessional with the district's Title I preschool program for 10 years.

"It's been amazing just to see how the kids learn and how good it's doing for them and what they are achieving with it already," she said. "I think it will really benefit the community."

Pendergraft, who grew up in Joplin, said she has been in education for 15 years. Before she came to the district, she worked at the Head Start schools in Cassville and Monett.

The building is the same design as the Everton School District's modular, Payne said.

"Superintendent Bob Walker went up their once to look at it and just to see the building layout," Payne said. "Then, Rachel and I spent a day there with their teacher and got an idea of the layout and what they do. It was neat. It was good experience. Everton was wonderful in sharing information and resources with us. I am very grateful for Everton's assistance."

Once the grant is up in five years, the district is not going to do away with the preschool, he said. The school is then going to fund everything. DESE gave the district the funds to get the building setup, and everything in the was purchased with grant funds.

"It's going to help our community, and the main thing, it's going to help our kids," said Payne, who plans to enroll his son into the preschool once he turns four in December. "That's what it's here for. I am happy that we got the grant because a lot people applied and not everybody got it."

The district's other preschool is a federally-funded program called early childhood special education. That program has admission guidelines, which hinges on income and special needs that children might have.

The hours at the new preschool are split up into three-hour classes in the morning and the afternoon.

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