Early childhood program's future uncertain

By Thomas Wilson

   Five days a week during the school year, dozens of the three and four-year-olds learn, socialize and play together through the Early Childhood Program of Elizabethton City Schools.
   Teachers use creative and problem solving methods to take children into the first step of learning. However, the program's future is clouded by the expiration of a federal grant that has funded its operation for three years and the relocation of the program from its current space at a privately-owned building on Bemberg Drive.
   The Cyclone Center houses the Program, which provides preschool learning for dozens of children. The school system has leased the office space from Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA) since 2000. The program is funded through federal Title I funds, Goals 2000 state grant as well as local funding by the school system.
   The program serves as a training site for East Tennessee State University and Milligan College students studying Early Childhood education.
   Whether ECS has the money to fund the program next school year remains to be determined.
   The Center has 64 students enrolled this school year with a waiting list of more than 50 children, according to Adeline Hyder, director of vocational education with Elizabethton City Schools, who oversees the Center. Enrollment is based on funding availability for the program.
   "We have people calling on a daily basis trying to get their kids in here," said Angela Bowman, who along with certified teachers Kim Pless, Susan Dugger and Susan Tinn staff the program.
   The program's federal grant expires at the end of the school year with the program expected to be fully funded at the local level, Hyder said.
   The Early Childhood Program began in 1974 under the title of Home Based Program, as one of 13. The Early Childhood curriculum includes math skills, language arts, motor skills of using tools, and social skills.
   "We do everything from teaching the letters, sounds and numbers," said Pless. "They learn how to follow directions." The program serves several children identified as special needs children while also providing breakfast and lunch to children many of who, says Hyder, have the only meal of the day in school.
   "If they are special-needs kids, they have to have services," said Tinn who has spent 26 years in elementary education. "They are more prepared for kindergarten."
   Tinn said activities once practiced in kindergarten had trickled down to the preschool level. Academic learning typically began in 1st and 2nd grades had made its way into kindergarten, said Tinn.
   "Everyone does something," said Pless. "There aren't demands of exact activities, but each child must be involved."
   Children learn social interaction, a critical step in preparing for kindergarten, said teachers. Dugger said that the Center operated under the philosophy of inclusion. A relatively common educational philosophy, inclusion places special needs children in general student population rather than isolating them. The idea being to remove stigmas and let young children interact and learn each other's own personalities, said Dugger.
   "We are the first stop of each child's education," said Dugger. "We want to provide them with a love of learning and at an early age."
   Program educators say kindergarten teachers recognize children who have the opportunity to go through the program once they reach the elementary level. Title I pilot programs in Tennessee. The ECS program is the lone surviving program.
   In 1996, Peggy Willocks, then principal of Harold McCormick, wrote and was awarded a Goals 2000 grant that expanded the programs to add classes and two additional staff members.
   System administrators later won additional grant dollars doubling the program's size. Initially housed at the ECS administration building, the program moved to Harold McCormick Elementary in 1981 before moving to the building in 2000.
   MSHA leased space to ECS three years ago when occupancy needs for physician space were low. Sycamore Shoals Hospital CEO Scott Williams said this week that physicians' offices near the hospital were now full, and hospital officials are scrambling to find new space.
   "We have communicated to the school board that we would need the space within the next 12 months," said Williams.
   The former Emergency Child Shelter building on Parkway Boulevard has been mentioned as a potential site for the program. The City of Elizabethton owns the building. Williams said the hospital would give the school system ample opportunity to relocate the program before pressing to lease the space.
   In addition to preschoolers losing their program, school personnel would effectively be losing their positions. In addition to certified teachers, the program also employs two teacher aides and maintenance worker.
   "If they cut the program completely, 15 people are out of work," said Hyder. While Pless, Tinn, Dugger and Bowman are certified to teach elementary education, the staff delights in working with children taking their first step into a socialized environment.
   "We could go into the elementary classroom," said Pless, "but all of us would prefer to be here."