By Benjamin Joe
Pre-K is starting up for Niagara-Wheatfield School District. To be held at the Bunny Bunch Day Care, the classes have already filled 120 spaces in nine classes, but there are 21 slots remaining for parents to register their children. Best of all, the classes are free.
The classes run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., weekdays. For parents who work beyond those hours, before and after school, there are “wrap-around” services available for a fee. Children must be dropped off and picked up by parent or guardian.
“It’s a full day, a lot of play-based activities,” said Jen Golias, a teacher at Errick Road Elementary School who will be working with the pre-K program. “There is a lunch that is provided and a snack. It’s all play-based, which mean they just play. It’s hands- on, authentic learning that they do.”
“There’s a huge push for social/emotional learning and growth,” said Nora O’Bryan, principal of Errick Road Elementary School. “Also, physical development and cognitive development.”
Students and parents will also be transitioned toward learning in Errick Road Elementary School, as well.
“They’ll have opportunities to come to the school prior to enrollment in kindergarten,” Golias said. “We have a little fieldtrip every year where they get on the school bus and they come over, visit their buildings and meet the teachers that are in the building.”
“They are invited to all of the home school events,” O’Bryan said. “Any family social, or around the holiday time, we had a Grinch social with the Grinch. They can come down to any of the fundraisers; they can come to any of the parent group meetings. Any of the parent universities – we just had one on ELA to learn different strategies for reading and writing.”
This program is a revival of the old Niagara-Wheatfield pre-K classes that were shut down because of budget cuts. In 2019, however, a nominal grant was found to fund the experience each year.
While the classes are not “in-house” as in at the Errick Road Elementary School, Golias was confident the Bunny Bunch locations will make the grade.
“It’s amazing over there, they really expanded Bunny Bunch, the facility, to add the nine classrooms,” Golias said. “It’s beautiful location, the building is very nice.”
“We want them to be socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten,” O’Bryan said of the goals of the program. “Understanding what it’s like to be in a school setting and how to be successful. If they don’t have that pre-K, it’s them at home, one on one with the parent or the neighborhood, versus being in a classroom with 16 other students and a teacher. That’s a big shift for a little person.
“They’ll also be exposed to letters, numbers, letter sounds, phonetic awareness. All of the building blocks and foundational skills for literacy and for math that you wouldn’t get just from being at home.”
Golias described what an onlooker might see if they came into the classroom.
“When you talk about play-based, there’s centers that kids can go to and then teachers will come in and will actually push into the centers while the students are playing and they’ll teach them about, maybe, sharing, or they’ll notice that a student is playing with certain toys and they’ll work on them with numbers during that time,” she said. “So, it’s not the teacher there standing, talking to kids, it’s more hands-on and it’s more whatever the student is working on. You push into that.”
“What you wouldn’t see in our pre-K, as one might expect, is a teacher teaching and kids doing worksheets,” O’Bryan added. “Play-based means there’s no worksheets. They’re not doing any worksheets at all. So, instead of learning about science through pictures on worksheets or matching, or something like that, they’re going to actually be experimenting with plants.”
Nine certified teachers have been hired to lead the classes at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Ward Road locations.
“They’re all certified teachers, they’re employed by Bunny Bunch, but we do all the professional development for them, and we provide the curriculum materials. So, they use our curriculum,” Golias said. “We train them, but they’re all Bunny Bunch employees.”
“In addition to play-based things, there are opportunities for small group things where we’ll do some shared reading with big books, they might sing a song.”
O’Bryan said the difference in students who’ve been exposed to school-life by pre-K classes is pretty apparent.
“They’re kind of ready to go,” she said. “Versus someone who has not been exposed to that, we’re going to have to catch them up.
“They’ve already learned a lot of the social-interaction skills, coming in. Knowing how to take turns, knowing how to wait for their turn, knowing how to make friends, knowing how to initiate a conversation or join a group of people who are playing.”
“They’ve done long-term studies on kids, who’ve had pre-K and ones who didn’t have pre-K,” Golias added, quoting from a study from the Urban Child Institute. “They can see the impact even in their ability to hold jobs. Short time benefits – kids with pre-K versus those who don’t – they have better attendances, heightened vocabulary and higher high school graduation rates.”
Parents interested in enrolling can do so by printing out the application at www.nwcsd.org/, or pick it up at Errick Road Elementary School. Interested parties can also call the school district at 716-215-3000.