In a small classroom located off the Clemens Primary School’s library, Strengthening Rural Families’ Next Steps teacher Sunny Bennett leads a group of preschool children Thursday through an “invisible ink” project involving lemon juice and a piece of paper.
The paper is heated up and a chemical reaction involving the acid in the lemon and the fibers in the paper occurs to reveal what was written or drawn.
It’s just one specific example of the type of early education going on at the Philomath school from preschool through the first grade. Officials from the school district as well as its partner organizations all seem to be excited about how their programs have progressed and what lies ahead.
The school district has partnered with Strengthening Rural Families and the Early Learning Hub to create Clemens Primary School’s Early Learning Center. The Little Warriors program and Linn-Benton Community College’s cooperative preschool also fit into the picture. In addition, the school district hosts its two-week Kindergarten Jump Start program each August before fall classes get started.
“The district as a whole is really supportive of enhancing and growing our preschool program because Strengthening Rural Families and LBCC and all the data that we’ve collected is showing the benefits of students being in a program before they come to kindergarten,” Clemens Primary School Principal Abby Couture said. “The transition’s easier, they do better socially and academically, so expanding that is our vision.”
Money from the Oregon Department of Education goes to what is called an Early Learning Hub, which then administers funding to school districts. There are 16 such hubs in Oregon, including one that serves Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. LBCC serves as the backbone organization for the local hub, which has as part of its mission to improve kindergarten readiness.
Currently, Strengthening Rural Families has morning and afternoon preschool classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The LBCC co-op classroom meets on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.
Couture, who is just in her second year as the Clemens Primary principal, hopes to see the preschool program evolve into a five-day-a-week experience for young students.
“The vision long term is to have the preschool model be more like the old kindergarten model,” she said. “Kindergarten used to be a half-day five days a week and you’d have a morning session and an afternoon session. We’d like to expand our program to have preschool that way — Monday through Friday and having morning and afternoon sessions. And now, we’re working on the funding — how do we support that model in the future?”
Couture anticipates enrollment to increase as housing options expand in town through various construction projects. She hopes that in the future, the primary school will expand.
“There are plans already when this building was built to have a whole another wing for another grade level,” Couture said. “So it’s already there and if we grow enough, I’m hoping that at some point we can put on the other wing and bring second grade over.
“My goal is to be a model school for the state,” she added. “And we’re moving in that direction.”
The Little Warriors program features high-school students that help plan lessons and work with the youngsters for a couple of hours. Some of those students after wrapping up their Little Warriors time, head over to the primary school to join up with an SRF class in the afternoon.
The LBCC cooperative provides a preschool learning environment with parents taking turns assisting the classroom teacher.
“I think this is a really exciting time for early childhood education in Philomath,” Bennett said. “We have not only the co-op preschool here but our program as well, the toddler class, the baby class, all of those things and all in this building, which is amazing.”
Strengthening Rural Families provides educational support through various programs as early as the prenatal months. As far as the organization’s Next Steps preschool program goes, there are 23 children enrolled in the two sessions — up from last year’s 16 children in one session.
Paul Smith, Strengthening Rural Families executive director, said there is data going back 40 years that show those early educational investments have great returns.
“I think the supports are finally starting to line up in some ways,” Smith said. “Even a couple of years ago, we didn’t have that continuum from babies to preschool age and now we have that sort of developed here.”
Bennett has experienced the benefits as not only a classroom teacher but herself as a parent.
“It’s kinda like we can get the parents here when their kids are babies and then they just keep coming back and they feel really comfortable in this space,” she said. “Since Melissa (Goff) came on board (as superintendent) and Abby came on board here, they’ve just been opening more and more doors for us for early childhood.”
Smith said there appears to be momentum at the state level in terms of providing tangible support.
“For me, being part of a small nonprofit, it’s always about are we going to sustainably invest and support these things financially?” Smith said. “We write a lot of grants to help edge into this and a lot of them are single-year grants. I’d just love to see that sort of sustainable, durable investment in this over time. We know it’s effective, we know the return on investment is there, we just haven’t chosen necessarily to make that investment consistently.”
Strengthening Rural Families also has a preschool in Alsea and Smith said his organization has been contacted about helping get one off the ground in Mill City.
Bennett said working in collaboration with the school district has been beneficial for the kids.
“Working with the teachers on different things, asking kindergarten teachers, what do you want these kids to be able to do, that kind of thing, so we’re really collaborating more and we really feel like a part of the school,” Bennett said.
The preschool programs are running at capacity.
“There are usually waiting lists to get into the preschool and so there’s definitely children out there that want to have the preschool experience but can’t because there’s not enough room in the programs,” Couture said. “That’s why we’re looking to expand it. It would be nice to offer a free option for preschool for any child in Philomath that may want to come.”