The year just before kindergarten is a critical time for a child’s growth and development. It’s when a 4-year-old learns about the routines of the classroom, learns to recognize letters and numbers and begins to share toys with friends.
“This is a time for critical social-emotional learning, when children practice taking turns, making sure they can open their milk cartons independently, and learning all the important skills they will take with them to kindergarten,” says Melissa Laseck, principal at M.L. King, Jr. Academy, a center for early childhood education in Mount Clemens Community Schools.
By all accounts, this is a year that shouldn’t be missed. Yet, Laseck says, at King — where preschool classrooms are typically filled and even have waitlists — there are spaces for 4-year-old students in the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP). “Where are the kids?” Laseck says.
It’s just a year — or is it?
During a pandemic year, parents are urged by some experts to consider the bigger picture with regard to their child’s education, and not worry so much about lost time. This might make sense for a middle school or high school student. But for a 4-year-old who is just beginning a formal education, a full missed year is a missed opportunity for tremendous growth.
While parents worry about sending their child to school during a pandemic, they may inadvertently rob them of valuable time to prepare for kindergarten. “There is so much research that confirms how quickly a child’s brain develops in the first five years of life,” Laseck says. “One year doesn’t seem like a lot to some, but it’s really a critical time for a child of this age.”
GSRP is Michigan’s state-funded kindergarten readiness program, which recently expanded through the removal of qualifying income restrictions for attendance. Every 4-year-old in Michigan is now eligible to attend their local GSRP preschool. Students do not have to live in Mount Clemens to attend school, making King Academy a wonderful option for students in nearby communities and for students whose parents work in or near Mount Clemens.
Kids in GSRP have access to all the best educational resources and highly qualified teachers. “It’s a nationally-recognized research-based curriculum specifically designed for young learners who are getting ready for kindergarten,” Laseck says. “It’s a huge benefit for kids to participate in prior to rising to kindergarten.”
At King Academy, students who attend the GSRP preschool share their school with a diverse and inclusive group of students, including those in the Michigan Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) and students in the Physical or Other Health Impairments (POHI) classrooms.
“The entire school is dedicated to early childhood education, and we have a beautiful building with a cafeteria, a spacious gym and a wonderful playground designed just for young children,” Laseck says. “We have a wonderful relationship with Seminole Academy, which is K-5, and our students here have the opportunity to meet their principal for next year and spend a special storytime together.”
Students in all King Academy programs attend either half-day or full-day programs, with Fridays dedicated to ongoing teacher training and professional development. “We engage in school-wide conversations about what we are seeing and learning so we can support one another, which is one of the great benefits of being such a small school in a relatively small district,” Laseck says.
Keeping everyone safe
With everyone strictly adhering to COVID-19 health and safety recommendations, school is a relatively safe place to be for a child. “Our teachers have the option to get the vaccine now and many have already had both doses,” Laseck says. “Students and staff all have their temperatures taken each day, and we have small class sizes. We practice social distancing by putting an X on the floor where each child should sit for circle time or stand when they line up in the hallways. We have special machines that provide deep cleaning in the classrooms each night.” The school also has an on-site nurse who monitors and supports the entire school community.
And, to everyone’s initial surprise, students show resilience about wearing masks while at school, Laseck says. “I think adults make a bigger deal about wearing masks than our kids do. They’ve done so well with it. It doesn’t bother them at all and they are so compliant,” she says.
M.L. King, Jr. Academy is accepting students for GSRP, even in the middle of the current school year. The program includes 4-year-old students as well as those who turned 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 1, 2020.
Whether or not students enroll in GSRP, Laseck wants the community to recognize the school as a resource for children who otherwise would be at home this year.
“We really want these kids to be in our classrooms, even to socialize and learn how to have conversations with their peers. We are a great resource for the community and want people to know that if a child is at home in an apartment but needs to get some fresh air and exercise, we will do what we can for all the kids in our community,” she says.
“All of our students receive breakfast and lunch, and a snack is also provided,” Laseck says, adding that all meals and snacks are individually wrapped and packaged for safety. “And best of all, we provide transportation for in-district students. We have beautiful classrooms and more than enough supplies. It’s really an easy experience for parents, and it’s a great opportunity for kids to achieve success in school and prepare for their kindergarten experience.”
Learn more about the Great Start Readiness Program — and all the early childhood programs — at M.L. King, Jr. Academy in Mount Clemens at www.mtcps.org.