Emanuel Lutheran Preschool filling vital community need

Emanuel Lutheran Preschool filling vital community need

After five years and 300 kids, grant-funded program continues to give families opportunities

By Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation


Welcome to what teacher Bonnie Samuelson calls “preschool prep.”

Here the little ones – around 2 ½ to 3 years old – get their first taste of the big leagues.

That is, school – where the big kids go.

And at Emanuel Lutheran Preschool where Samuelson serves as the director, one walks away with a bevy of life skills for which future teachers, coaches, bosses, significant others and society in general will forever be thankful. From following directions to sitting in a circle to using the toilet to dressing – in her classroom, they begin laying the groundwork to life.

“We try to provide a balance of things,” she said.

And while they work on their social skills and independence, the students also build on their cognitive abilities.

“By the time they’re done, I’d like for them to be able to find their name out of a group, be able to tell me at least one or two letters of their name. I’d like for them to be able to count to 10,” Samuelson said, listing several benchmarks her and the students endeavor to achieve.

Making these baby steps at such a young age is important, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because 90 percent of children’s adult brain volume is developed by their sixth birthdays. And making those strides at the three-year mark can lead, according to Stanford University research, to better cognitive abilities.

This can be doubly critical for kids who may face certain developmental or socioeconomic challenges. But preschool, especially quality preschool, is expensive and presents a major obstacle for parents who may already live in a financial vice.

The Early Childhood Block Grant, financed though the Kansas Children’s Cabinet & Trust Fund and administered by the Hutchinson Community Foundation, attempts to alleviate this pressure on Reno County families via several services, one of them through targeted preschool programs.

Above: Students at Emanuel Lutheran Preschool listen as teacher Bonnie Samuelson reads “Go Away, Big Green Monster!” to them as paraprofessional Rebecca Lofland listens with the kids. Top: Samuelson leads students in their morning Yoga exercises. (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

Like family

When Samuelson arrives in the church’s gymnasium on a recent weekday morning where children engage in various activities, the kids abandon plastic toys and playing stations and run for her big embrace.

That’s how they start the day here – like family – because that’s what’s been built in the five years since the preschool took up residence in the church’s building.

Samuelson credits that bond between the preschool and church staffs with helping make the school successful.

“It has all gone fairly smoothly,” Samuelson said when talking about the experience over the years, “and most of that is due to the church. … Everything just runs smoothly and they’re a lot of that reason why.”

Once Samuelson corrals the students, she leads them to their classroom where they stow their belongings in buckets and find their assigned spots behind thin foam squares spaced evenly on the classroom’s carpeted floor.

After singing the “Welcome” song, the students begin their Yoga regimen, bending first this way then that in exercises meant to stretch and calm them before settling into the schoolroom routine.

Once they’re properly loosened and focused, Samuelson leads them into reading time.

This week’s book? “Go Away, Big Green Monster!”

“Do you guys go to the library?” Samuelson asks.

“I go with my mommy,” several small voices reply.

The rest of the morning unfolds with a session on reading and numbers, a craft project tied to their book of the week, snacks and play – lots of creative play.

At one point, speech therapist Denny Cairns drops by for a brief session with some of the kids.

Unlike for-profit preschools, Emanuel Lutheran provides this environment free to children and families who meet certain criteria. Among possible factors considered at enrollment are qualifying for free or reduced lunches; having one or both parents who did not graduate from high school; having an individualized education plan (IEP), such as speech therapy; or being in foster care.

Samuel Slater, 4, works on his craft project tied to the class’ book of the week, “Go Away, Big Green Monster!” (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

The program accepts children all year, with class sizes at around 10 and a total student load of around 70 between Samuelson and the school’s other teacher, Amanda Beeghley. Samuelson estimates around 280 families and more than 300 children have graced the classrooms in the program’s five years at Emanuel Lutheran.

Under the terms of the grant, teachers administer Individual Growth and Development Indicator tests at various points throughout the year to measure the students’ progress and spot potential physical or cognitive delays.

The parent part

During playtime, Samuelson and classroom paraprofessional Rebecca Lofland track what the kids do. That information goes home each day for Mom and Dad to review. It also, according to Samuelson, provides conversation starters for parents and their kids, which in turn, gives the kids a chance to practice their verbal skills at home.

Samuelson’s made it a point to include parents in the preschool experience and strives to forge new paths of communication. This year, as another means of staying in touch with technology-reliant parents, she began using the Class Dojo app. It contains student profiles and a diary of sorts where parents can see pictures of their children participating in the classroom, find announcements of upcoming events and receive private messages from Samuelson.

Blake Campbell, 3; Emerson Meyer, 4; Kason Morgan, 4; and Dominic Coulter, 4, watch as Samuelson instructs them on their craft project. (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

“Just anything to get more communication between home and school,” she said.

That parent inclusiveness extends to surveying parents at the beginning of the year about the topics of biggest concern to them and about which they would like more information. Their responses can often translate into extracurricular activities, such as literacy nights at the school or library; sessions with Cairns on typical speech development; workshops with a psychologist on behavior, bedtime routines and potty training; or even trips to the pumpkin patch.

“That parent part has been really awesome,” she said. “What they express a need for is what I try to find for them. And we have some pretty good attendance at our parent nights.”

Because of the preschool’s licensing, the students eventually age out and must be off to other child care situations before kindergarten eligibility age rolls around. In some cases, that could mean another year or two with another preschool or caregiver. And because she knows her students may end up in another preschool, Samuelson likes to stay abreast of what those other schools do so that her students arrive prepared.

Samuel Slater, left, and Evan Lahann, 4, engage in playtime at Emanuel Lutheran Preschool. (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

A necessary partnership

The collaboration fueled by Hutchinson Community Foundation through the Early Childhood Block Grant between the preschool, the church and the Early Education Center has been successful, Samuelson said.

“Everybody improves. Everybody. There’s always a miraculous learning curve between the beginning of school when it’s all rough and a lot of them have never been anywhere else but home. … And boy, in a couple of months, you look back and you think, ‘Wow! Look how good they’re doing!’ ”

She said some children with IEPs even progress well enough to be dismissed from the plan or will go on to other preschools, quickly meet their goals and no longer need it.

Parent Tori Clark credits the school with helping her daughter, Kinslee, overcome her communication obstacles. A speech therapist referred them to Emanuel Lutheran because Kinslee was a late talker.

“Kinslee’s speech quickly advanced the first year,” Clark said, “and she was dismissed from her IEP the middle part of the second year.”

In Samuelson’s mind, then, the collaboration is not only a successful one but also a necessary one.

“Without that, we wouldn’t be here,” Samuelson said, “and I feel like this program has given opportunities for children and for their parents that they might not have had if this hadn’t been here. I have 21 children with IEPs and Amanda has 15 to 16. If this program wasn’t here, where would all those children be? Where would they go?”

And inherent to those questions for parents such as Clark is finding the quality help a child needs without straining a tight budget.

“Being a one-income family, cost was important to us when we were needing to decide about preschool options for our daughter. We have a very limited budget and the free cost of ELCP was a HUGE blessing to our family.”

Wendy Skellenger is the communications officer at Hutchinson Community Foundation. Email: wendy@hutchcf.org.