Dinner and Dialogue puts focus on Walla Walla Valley kids

The event brings people invested in early learning together to share ideas and success strategies to fully prepare children for school.

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WALLA WALLA — A discussion on how to prepare children for kindergarten — and how to improve the transition to school from preschool and child care — was the focus of the second annual Dinner and Dialogue event Thursday at Walla Walla Community College.

The early learning event drew about 100 early learning professionals — from child-care workers and directors, to elementary school teachers and principals — for a series of panel talks that were then discussed in small groups at tables.

The two-hour event, coordinated by the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition, looks to bring people invested in early learning together to share ideas and success strategies to fully prepare children for school.

Making the dinner an annual event became a demand of people who took part in the project last year.

“Last year’s event proved to be a dynamic and productive opportunity for early education advocates to meet one another, share common issues and discuss strategies to develop school readiness,” said Samantha Bowen, director of Early Childhood Education at WWCC, and program manager for the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition, in a statement. “It was so popular we decided to make it an annual event.”

At the dinner, Bowen described exciting times for early learning in the state. Washington recently received a $60 million Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge award to be used for early learning efforts over four years.

Early learning efforts through Thrive by Five Washington, the “Love.Talk.Play” initiative, and the WaKIDS inventory of developing skills, are meant to insure children are prepared for school and life.

Attendees heard from preschool and child-care professionals, and kindergarten teachers in two different panels. Each series of panelists was followed with brief discussions at individual tables.

Audrey Melchoir, director of Giant Steps Preschool and Child Care, spoke about the importance of developing children’s social and emotional skills, and communication skills, in preparing children for kindergarten. Learning to share, to be patient, to interact with other children and practice problem solving were stressed.

Maria Marin, director of The Children’s Center, said she helps build children’s confidence and self-esteem by highlighting their achievements before focusing on the academics of kindergarten readiness. Marin said circle time is popular with children and valuable to review basics like colors, shapes and letters.

Although panelists spoke about strategies that get children ready for kindergarten in preschool or child-care settings, many Valley children do not attend preschool or licensed child care prior to starting school. A desire to reach those children, who typically start school behind their peers, was one goal to emerge from the talks and is part of an ongoing discussion in the early learning community.

Jodi Grove, a kindergarten teacher at Edison Elementary, said this school year has been a challenge because of children arriving at kindergarten without any prior experience in a classroom setting or with other children.

“This is the first year that I’ve had so many children without preschool,” said Grove, who has taught at Edison for six years. She guessed about a quarter of her students had not been in formal programs prior to kindergarten.

“I feel like they spend all year trying to catch up to those kids who have had preschool,” she said.

One table explored the need for preschools to reach out to kindergarten classes and bring students in through field days or field trips before starting school.

Catherine Wolpert, director of the Early Learning Center at Assumption Catholic School, said her preschool classes recently had a successful field day, where teachers and students visited kindergarten classes.

The chance to visit a kindergarten classroom can help a child prepare for the transition.

Joyce Moreno, kindergarten teacher at Blue Ridge Elementary, said she remembered a Step Up Day of bringing preschoolers to the school, but couldn’t recall when the program ended.

More general discussions focused on the need for a streamlined kindergarten readiness assessment and the potential for a transitional kindergarten for children who have not reached basic skills prior to enrolling in school.

Some of the discussion touched on a better kindergarten readiness assessment in the state and the potential for earlier interventions.

At another table, Arturo and Blanca Tello, who run an in-home licensed child-care center, said they use the summer months to focus on basics with children who are getting ready to start kindergarten. The Tellos are taking part in the new Early Achievers program through the Department of Early Learning, a volunteer rating system that encourages licensed child-care providers to meet high standards through coaching and instruction.

“We go over letter sounds, shapes, colors, to build children’s academic skills,” Arturo Tello said in Spanish. “That way when they get to kindergarten they bring a strong base, because they’ve been exposed to it.”

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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