At two Valley preschools, youngsters are learning more than colors and ABCs. They're also learning how to embrace diversity.
The preschools are taking markedly different approaches. One operated by Clovis Unified combines general and special education preschoolers in a single classroom, while three Fresno Unified preschool classes immerse children in a Spanish-English language environment.
At the Clovis Unified preschool at Reagan Elementary, 4-year-old Cassidy Davis gets instruction from a general education teacher, a special education teacher, three teaching assistants, a speech/language pathologist twice a week and a psychiatrist once a week.
Cassidy has cerebellar hypoplasia, a brain defect that her mother, Becky Davis, said inhibits her language skills. "She wasn't able to express things that we knew she knew," Davis said. "We've been in the program for a year, and now she can use five-word sentences."
Davis said the speech therapist gave teachers special ways to coach Cassidy, including standing in her way and forcing her to ask them to move. "It seemed a little mean at first, but I know it works now," she said.
The program, which is open to 40 students, is free, but students' family income must fall under the maximum income threshold for free public preschool, said Charlene Kiyuna, child development coordinator for Clovis Unified. Most of the students live within the school's recruitment area.
Creating the preschool for special and general education preschoolers was a team effort, she said.
Kiyuna's office had to coordinate with the district's special education department to obtain the permits and licensing required of both programs. The process took more than 18 months and involved numerous consultations involving early education experts statewide.
Kiyuna said the two offices continue to work in tandem to make sure both groups of students receive the legally required instruction and meet their individual goals.
The preschool benefits both groups of children. Special education students can model their behavior by watching their nondisabled peers, and may advance sufficiently to be mainstreamed into a regular kindergarten class. Meanwhile, children without disabilities can associate with and learn from youngsters they might not otherwise have gotten to know.
Seventy-one percent of special education students who attended "inclusion" preschool went on to general education kindergarten, compared with 50% who attended a special ed preschool and then general education kindergarten, said Katie Kraetsch, a special education program specialist. She added that many of these students required some level of additional instruction outside of standard kindergarten.
Meanwhile, the nondisabled students test higher in empathy than those from traditional preschools within the district, Kiyuna said.
Amanda Caress, who is in her first year as the twice-weekly speech/language pathologist, said she believes one of the program's greatest strengths comes from peer modeling. "The students are together 100% of the time. Kids want to be like other kids, so the language just fosters naturally."
At the dual immersion preschool classroom at Ewing Elementary in Fresno, students are just beginning a long-term education plan.
Dustin De Santiago has four children in different stages of the program. His youngest, 4-year-old Tevez, just started in preschool.
"It's really an amazing program," he said. "My eldest is 9 years old, and she can already speak Spanish pretty well. She also corrects my English sometimes. The program has increased her knowledge of both."
The preschoolers are English speakers with at least one Spanish-speaking parent. Ninety percent of their classroom instruction is in Spanish. Most of this is simple commands, such as asking students to count or stand up. Teachers use hand gestures and objects to help the students understand their requests.
Teacher Maria Rodriguez said that these techniques help familiarize students with Spanish sounds, letters and numbers, which will help them later on in the program. "The dual immersion kindergarten teacher told me that students who go through our preschooling have a much better understanding of Spanish than those that don't."
Rodriguez, who has taught the dual immersion preschool class at Ewing since it began in 2011, was previously a general education preschool teacher.
She said that she knows to watch a student's facial cues to make sure they don't get too frustrated with the Spanish instruction. If this happens, she slows down, although this means moving more slowly than in traditional classes.
The program doesn't receive any additional funding. Parents don't pay anything for the service, but family income must not exceed the federal poverty level, which is $23,850 for a four-person household.
Due to popular demand, a lottery system is used to select new students, although children within the school's boundaries or with siblings already within the program take priority in the selection process, said Patricia Wolf Kincade, a bilingual research specialist.
The goal of the dual immersion program, which is taught at Ewing, Sunset and Ann Leavenworth elementary schools in Fresno through the sixth grade, is to produce children who are culturally competent and can speak and read in two languages, Kincade said.