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4K program delivers basic lessons

This group of four-year-old kids attends pre-K classes at the Little Adventures Child Care. <i>Submitted photos</i>

River Falls first pre-K program, River Falls 4 Children (RF4C), has reached the halfway point of its first year. Those closest to the program say so far it earns high marks.

RF4C Program Administrator Rita Humbert, also Westside Elementary principal, and RF4C Program Coordinator Becky McAleavey say good feedback continues from students, parents and teachers.

Both agree the program intends to help four-year-olds lay a good foundation for academics and overall cognitive development, as well as for ever-important social and emotional skills.

Humbert and McAleavey say the program began in September in six River Falls locations: Abundant Life Learning Center, CHILD Center at UW River Falls, Jacob's Ladder, Little Adventures Child Care, River Falls Public Montessori School and the University Preschool.

A total of nine teachers, licensed through the state, conduct the Monday-Friday classes, which typically run about two hours and 40 minutes in the morning or afternoon.

There are 153 four-year-olds enrolled in RF4C. Humbert said the state requires a ratio of one teacher to every 13 children with a 24-student maximum, and the square footage of a facility also affects how many kids it can host.

All in a day's work

Asked what the kids do in a typical day, Humbert said to most people it looks like play, but the trained specialists detect the bits of progress, such as kids recognizing their name or sitting still a few seconds longer.

McAleavey and Humbert agree with a smile that the four-year-olds don't sit for very long.

Kids enter the room then gather, talk about who is there, do a group greeting and discuss a designated topic, said McAleavey. Students play at different stations, which change and rotate but include dramatic play, science, blocks, art, library or sensory materials.

The sensory setup, for example, offers the chance to feel the texture of different things, maybe shaving cream or snow. A snack station teaches the youngsters about serving themselves.

"It's a lot of hands-on activity," said McAleavey.

The coordinator said the kids also go outside each day for some running, climbing, jumping and play-structure fun. Some days find the four-year-olds cutting shapes, gluing or pasting, and nearly all lessons include learning to follow directions.

Humbert points out about RF4C: "The social-emotional aspect is a top priority."

She said kindergarten teachers attest to how much faster kids can learn if they've already mastered important concepts such as listening, sharing, taking turns, feeling empathy and sitting still.

The principal confirms it is standard to assess the progress of kindergarten and pre-K students at the start and end of each year. Educators will review and learn from those assessments.

Generally, the curriculum includes the kids forming letters, sharpening their fine motor skills, recognizing their name and others' names, drawing pictures of themselves and other people, realizing geography, doing mazes, learning basic shapes, and starting to write letters.

Their classes also involve literacy-based activities that include storytelling, puppets and display boards and fun lessons about words, sounds and continents.

Building, keeping momentum

Humbert explains that while startup funding for the program came from the district's general fund, a grant and state money will replace it. RFSD estimates that program will be fully funded by state aid within three years.

The district renewed its annual contract with providers at a meeting in January. The first agreement provided $1,888 per student, and the new arrangement asks for $2,100.

Humbert said the 'contractors' must have or hire certified teachers and incur other costs to meet the state's standards. The "per-pupil" cost covers instruction, busing and supplies.

The women serve on the program's advisory committee, which includes two parents, two kindergarten teachers and a staff member from the public library. McAleavey said she meets with the RF4C teachers regularly, and parents have two opportunities per year for a teacher conference.

The two are eager to reach more parents for the upcoming school year. McAleavey lists a dozen locations to which she's taken the RF4C brochure; it was also inserted into the community education catalog. People can find more information about the program on the school district's web site --

Parents can attend two informational nights: 6:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Rocky Branch Elementary gym and Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Westside Elementary gym.

Humbert said the district wants parents to know that enrollment doesn't cost them anything out of pocket. The principal and RF4C administrator calls the program a "great equalizer" open to all children.

McAleavey mentions that registration information for the 2013-2014 school year comes only to Westside Elementary, unlike last year when each class site accepted them. Humbert says the only other change is the addition of 10 minutes to each session so that a 'snow-day cushion' is there if needed.

The evidence of good progress among the four-year-olds generates excitement among everyone involved with RF4C. Humbert and McAleavey agree that in many ways, the program strengthens the community's support for children.