Rural youth benefiting from new preschool in Vernon
Vernon, AZ | Submitted by Kristen Orton
While many rural schools in Arizona are struggling with declining enrollment, Vernon Elementary has doubled its student body in the last four years. At the same time, the school has greatly improved academics, transitioning from a failing school to B-rated. The Title I school is making great strides, despite local poverty levels.
Unfortunately, families in the area have few options for early education because of the rural location. Leadership at Vernon Elementary knows that preschool is a critically formative time for students. So they set out to create a holistic preschool for local four-year-olds.
The unique preschool is blended with the school’s kindergarten students, so that both grow together. And because a highly effective teacher is instrumental in student success, Vernon Elementary secured an educator with a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education. The classroom also benefits from a specially trained aide.
The full-day program kindergarten and half-day preschool is free to students who live in the district. To make transportation easier for families, the preschool runs free transportation. Kids are provided both breakfast and lunch, to ensure that learning isn’t disrupted by hunger. And students are ensured a unique experience. Through the Rural Innovation and Activation Network grant, the school secured funds to create a chicken coop, as well as providing the afterschool STEAM program materials to build a chunnel. The University of Arizona Apache County Cooperative Extension assisted with funding, education, and built a vegetable garden. The outdoor exploratory time is very valuable to the students’ well-being.
Learning through play is a big theme, and students have explored everything from gardening to sports. Of course, these activities are paired with traditional preschool work, like learning numbers and letters, art and more.
Getting the classroom up and running has been a community effort. A private school in the Phoenix area donated equipment and the local Catholic parish held a fundraiser. The Springerville-Eagar and Show Low Regional Chamber of Commerce provided support. But families haven’t been off the hook, either. Parents are encouraged to volunteer in the classroom, as well as attend a monthly event. This gives them an opportunity to learn more about what the students are doing and how they can support growth in the home.
In a state where only one in four students are enrolled in quality early learning settings, the goal outlined in the Arizona Education Progress Meter is to increase this to 45 percent by 2030. Higher enrollment in these programs will help decrease the achievement gap and improve everything from reading ability to social skills.
The free preschool is new this year, but already showing results. Students have developed boundless enthusiasm for learning and are always engaged. The class is fostering a love of learning. The academic and personal growth will stay with them for years to come.