Inside one of two new classrooms at Mickelson Middle School last Friday, early childhood teacher Andrea Glover asks her students to place clothing on the appropriate places over drawings of a boy and girl. Early childhood classrooms were in Camelot Intermediate School for the past three years, but moved this fall into the former shop space at Mickelson. Photo by Charis Prunty/Register
• Program moved this fall into newly created classrooms at Mickelson
BROOKINGS – Following a theme of “All About Me” last week, some of the smallest students in the Brookings Public School District were learning about things like feet and other parts of their bodies, and talking about boys and girls.
As teachers lead them to explore all sorts of things, these little learners require more room to move around and different learning tools than most of their older counterparts. That’s why Brookings Public Schools’ Early Childhood program is excited this year to be in its new space at Mickelson Middle School.
This summer, the district transformed what was Mickelson’s industrial technology area into two classrooms, an occupational therapy/physical therapy room, speech therapy offices, a family-style restroom and an entryway with a long bench and cubby spaces.
The move was also good for Camelot Intermediate School, where Early Childhood had been located for three years. Special Education Director Michelle Powers said Camelot needed the space.
“With the growth in the district, their orchestra programs, band programs were expanding,” Powers said. “We were actually using an orchestra practice room, which is about half the size of these rooms with about three times the number of kids.
“It was wonderful of them to share that space with us … but it just wasn’t designed for early childhood.
“Even things like the bathrooms: If you’ve ever taken a little child to the bathroom and it’s an adult-sized toilet, that’s not always a good outcome,” Powers added. “And, for our little guys that are learning how to use the toilet, we need to have something that’s going to make them feel safe and secure. So now what we have is toilets that are the right height and size, and there’s enough space for adults to be in the room to help them.
“So, that’s definitely the advantage of the new space that we have in terms of personal care. We’re even more excited about the instructional space that we have, because now we can do more things.”
While the two classrooms are not as large as rooms meant for 20 or so students, they are a nice size for early childhood, which limits its classes to six or seven students at a time. Students come for morning or afternoon sessions, for varying lengths of time, and from two to five days per week – all depending on their needs.
Each classroom has a teacher and an aide: teachers right now are Andrea Glover and long-term sub Amy Nielson, and aides are Amy Kaemingk and Bev Hiler. Speech therapists Jennifer Mees and Teresa Charlson have offices in the same hall to work with these young students.
Areas for different needs
Some early childhood students also receive physical therapy and/or occupational therapy from the district-wide OT and PT staff, Missy Osbeck and Andrea Schulz. For this, they have a separate OT/PT room. Inside are lots of bright play areas, like a ball pit and swings, meant to stimulate kids’ senses and help them learn things like balance and coordination. There is also a small, cozy area where kids can retreat from the activity, and even a Sensory Pea Pod from which they can get a calming “hug.”
A table where kids work on fine motor skills like coloring, drawing and cutting paper is also in the room. Therapists can help to expand some students’ eating habits there, too.
“We have a lot of students who come to us who really have difficulty with eating patterns, because food is a sensory experience,” Powers said. “And so, for many students, it’s extremely challenging for them to have a good repertoire of foods to eat because they’re sensitive to the textures.
“So, my staff will work with them in measured increments with safe exploration of different foods and different textures to get them eating more foods. It’s not uncommon to have kids come to us who, their main source of food is macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, because those foods are very soft and easy.”
In the classroom last week, Glover was asking students to receptively identify clothing items and other things using flannel dolls of a boy and a girl. As Glover interacted with the kids, Hiler took notes on what each student was able to do.
“She was marking all that data down so I can go back and look at that, and see how they’re all making progress,” Glover said. “Some might be working on receptively understanding it, while some are also working on expressively trying to point out ’What is this?’ and getting them to name it. So, it just depends; everyone’s different.”
Kids accepted to the Early Childhood program have been evaluated by district staff and identified as having specific learning needs. Those needs are identified in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) that is created for each student and reviewed regularly. That’s different from a pre-school program, Powers said.
“A pre-school program is one that’s designed to work with similarly-aged groups of children in larger groups, and usually you’re talking about 18-20 kids at a time, maybe with a teacher and an aide, and those are children that don’t require the kind of specialized instruction that we’re providing,” Powers said.
“We’re doing very discreet, specific instruction with our students based on what they need in their IEPs. They each have annual goals that are different, what one student has vs. another.”
Numbers to rise
By an end-of-August count, Brookings’ early childhood program was serving 32 children. But that number will rise over the course of the school year, as the district evaluates more kids for learning needs. Kids, from newborns to age 3, are referred to the program often through daycare or pre-school teachers. Screenings are also regularly advertised, so parents can initiate the process themselves.
While 3- and 4-year-olds are served at the Early Childhood center, federal law requires that kids younger than 3 be seen in a natural setting such as home or their daycare. Even these babies and toddlers may receive OT, PT and speech services, too.
So, the staff stays busy. But they are also enjoying the larger space this year. Last year, students used lockers in the classrooms, in which the hooks were too high for some of them to reach their own coats. Now they have cubbies in the entryway, where there’s less to trip over as they pull coats and boots on and off. Teachers have more desk space in the classrooms and more space to allocate for various learning activities.
Functional for kids
“Just having room for sensory exploration – we were talking about some kids are sensitive to certain activities – we have that in the room,” Glover said.
“We weren’t able to have a dramatic play area set up in our old classroom; now we have that set up where it’s functional for the kids. Even the slightest thing of having the sink in the classroom so they can work on washing their hands after we paint or do something like that, so we don’t have to truck all the way down the hallway to do it or use a container of baby wipes. It’s just really nice, it’s more functional for us.”
Powers noted that Mickelson doesn’t need its shop space right now because it has moved to a computer-based synergistics program, in which students learn things like crime investigation and how to fly an aircraft. Middle school students will still be doing some projects and experiments, she added, and will occasionally use a multi-faucet sink in the early childhood entryway for those projects.
Contact Charis Prunty at email@example.com.