Dental care and fire trucks: Making preschools service-rich

Think of Stephanie Sanabria as a one-woman fiber optic network. As a City Connects Coordinator, she connects 11 classrooms in Springfield’s Early Childhood Education Center with resources across the city and brings those resources right into the building where it’s easy for young children and their parents to access them.

This building-based approach is an essential part of how City Connects works in Springfield’s early education settings to meet children’s needs and build on their strengths.

“We adapted City Connects for the early childhood years because that’s such an important stage developmentally,” Anastasia Raczek explains. Raczek is the Associate Director of Research & Evaluation at the Center for Optimized Student Support, which is based at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

We used funding from the Better Way Foundation to launch this effort in Catholic Schools. The first program launched in 2012 in Boston. Today, City Connects serves more than 2,000 pre-K children in programs across the country.

“What we know from developmental science is that the environment a young child is in can influence brain development and physical development,” Raczek adds. “These early experiences can affect their future outcomes: their health and their education. We also know that there are more needs in the health domain because this is the age that families are beginning to learn that a child has asthma or other health or well-being challenges.”

“What we’ve learned in early childhood settings is that we have to support a really rich environment. That includes engaging parents so we can understand the child’s development in context.”

So just as they do in elementary school settings, coordinators do whole class reviews, meeting with teachers to discuss every child in their class.

In Springfield, Sanabria does what she calls a “pre-whole class review observation.”

“At the beginning of the school year,” she says, “teachers know that I’m going to be going into their classrooms to observe the students, to get to know our new students and observe our continuing students.”

Sanabria is looking at students’ skills, what they know, and how they are interacting with peers. Then when she conducts whole class reviews, she can raise questions with teachers. If a child needs a speech screening, behavioral support, vision care, or improved access to food Sanabria can make that happen, freeing teachers up to focus on teaching

Layered on top of what teachers do in Springfield’s 2 ½-hour-long preschool day, is a dense web of services that Sanabria has woven. She brings in key services such as dental services. The UMass Extension Nutrition Education Program runs a four-week workshop that teaches children about fruits and vegetables through stories, songs, puppets, and the opportunity to taste the food they’re learning about.

To meet the needs of children in the program, Sanabria’s principal asked her to supplement the work that teachers do, so Sanabria focuses on students’ social-emotional development behavior, running social skills groups in the classrooms to help students build their ability to listen, follow rules, and manage their own emotions. She also focuses on empathy, teaching children to identify feelings based on their peers’ faces and body language.

“When a friend is sad,” she’ll ask, “what can you say, what can you do?” This helps children become resources for each other.

And since it’s tough to do field trips, during the 2 1/2 day, Sanabria brings the field trips to the center.

“We do a community vehicles day here at the school,” Sanabria says, explaining that the day is linked to the part of the classroom curriculum that focuses on community helpers. On past vehicle days, children have gotten to explore a police car, an ambulance, a fire truck, a street cleaner, a limousine, and a military truck. “We have a large school bus so that we can say to the kids, when you go to kindergarten, you might go on a large school bus.”

The Springfield Library comes and does sensory story time for children with autism, reading stories and using sensory toys so that children have an experience that is tailored to their learning styles. 

Parents also benefit from learning opportunities, including a workshop where parents learn about new ways to read to their children.

“When you read a book to your child, you don’t just read,” Sanabria explains. “You can ask comprehension questions or say ‘point to the red ball.’ ‘This word starts with what letter? Can you find another word that starts with that letter?’

“It’s how to read to a child so they’re learning.”

Sanabria has also organized workshops for parents whose children have autism. Parents get to meet each other, learn, and take home a skill to implement. Workshop topics have included toilet training, choosing a summer program, and managing technology use.

Research on City Connects and early education is ongoing. We know that children have better outcomes when they attend both high-quality pre-K programs and elementary schools that use the City Connects model. Now researchers at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development are studying the impact of having City Connects in both pre-K and elementary schools so we can learn more about our cumulative impact.

But even without research, what Sanabria knows so far is this:

“City Connects makes the school a service-rich school. It gives children a very well-rounded experience as the foundation of their educations.”

Indeed, in pre-K settings City Connects coordinators free teachers up to teach, while coordinators, embed services in buildings and classrooms, engage parents, and help children thrive in preschool, so that they are ready to succeed in elementary school.

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