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St. Helena educators say preschool helps kid succeed

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During the wild first few weeks of kindergarten, it doesn’t take long for an experienced teacher like Julie Cia to notice who attended preschool and who didn’t.

The kids who did are more likely to be able to part with their parents without crying, sit in a circle for storytime, hold a pencil, write their name, and share toys and supplies.

The kids who didn’t are likely to struggle with any or all of those basic skills.

“The early years are so formative in all areas of a child’s development,” said Julie Cia, who’s taught for 20 years, 10 of them at St. Helena Primary School.

“Preschool provides opportunities for children to learn through play and helps them socially,” she said. “It helps them transition to kindergarten easier and learn school routines. Play and exploration help their development physically and mentally.”

Throughout September, the St. Helena Rotary Club is sponsoring a fundraiser for the nonprofit St. Helena Preschool For All, which awards scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds to attend preschool in Angwin, Calistoga or St. Helena. The success of the campaign could determine how many of the eight kids seeking scholarships will get one.

Rebekah Rocha, principal at St. Helena Primary School, has worked in communities where most kids haven’t attended preschool, and there’s a noticeable difference in the way kindergarteners manage the transition.

“A lot of kindergarteners who didn’t attend preschool have never been away from their parents, and there’s this trauma of being separated for the first time,” Rocha said. “Those kids really struggle socially. Even going to recess and playing with another child can be uncomfortable for them.”

For example, Cia mentioned two kids who went straight to kindergarten without attending preschool. They both had trouble sitting still and listening to a story, and one had emotional trouble being separated from his parents, which limited his ability to learn during the first five or six weeks of kindergarten.

Many local families struggle to afford housing and food, and preschool is one more expense. Preschool For All expands preschool access to kids whose families might not be able to afford it otherwise, said Cia, who called it "a great program."

Rocha said Preschool For All’s scholarships also benefit private preschools by increasing ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.

“Socioeconomic segregation, which is often (linked to) ethnicity, starts at age 3,” Rocha said. “When my kids were going to preschool I wanted them to experience that diversity.”

St. Helena Preschool For All offers scholarships to Little Backpacks Preschool, Mila’s Preschool & Childcare Center, Sun & Stars Montessori School and Wee Care Childcare in St. Helena; St. Helena Cooperative Nursery School in Rutherford; Discoveryland Children Center in Angwin; and Hearts and Hands Preschool in Calistoga.

Mail a tax-deductible donation to St. Helena Rotary Foundation, P.O. Box 211, St. Helena, CA 94574, or go to gorotary.net and donate online.

Across the U.S., COVID-19 relief money is helping to subsidize growing numbers of big-city schools with small numbers of students. When the money runs out in a few years, officials will face a difficult choice: Keep the schools open despite the financial strain, or close them, upsetting communities looking for stability for their children. An analysis by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press shows more than one in five New York City elementary schools had fewer than 300 students last school year. In Los Angeles, that figure was over one in four. In Chicago it has grown to nearly one in three. On a recent morning inside Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago's West Side, five preschool and kindergarten students finished up drawings. Four staffers, including a teacher and a tutor, chatted with them about colors and shapes. The summer program offers the kind of one-on-one support parents love.

You can reach Jesse Duarte at (707) 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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