Patrick Hamilton to host Strong Beginnings preschool program

DOWAGIAC — A local organization is offering a preschool program area families can be a part of.

Dowagiac Union Schools’ Patrick Hamilton Elementary School, along with Marcellus Elementary School, will host a Strong Beginnings classroom through the Lewis Cass Intermediate School District beginning Tuesday, Jan. 12.

Lewis Cass ISD’s Strong Beginnings is an early childhood education pilot program offered to three-year-old children who experience various barriers to learning in the Lewis Cass ISD service area. In November, Lewis Cass ISD’s Department of Early Childhood Education was awarded the grant by the Michigan Department of Education Office of Great Start as only one of four intermediate school districts in the state of Michigan.

The program is modeled on Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program, with modifications made to ensure suitability for three-year-old children. According to Chris Whitmire, director of early childhood education for Lewis Cass ISD, research on two-year preschool programs indicates that children who enter formal education in kindergarten with two years of preschool experience show significant positive developmental differences when compared to children who attended for only one year.

“It is a great program helping students and families with early education,” said Dowagiac Union Schools superintendent Jonathan Whan. “We both greatly enjoy and appreciate our partnership with the Lewis Cass ISD.”

“Dowagiac Union Schools stepped up and said they want to be part of it,” Whitmire added. “Having strong community partners makes a huge difference in regards to early childhood education. The districts are very excited because they are the earliest learners. We have found that families are excited for the program.”

Families with children aged three by Sept. 1 to Dec. 1 are eligible for Strong Beginnings, according to qualifying factors that work to increase equity and accessibility in the community.

Whitmire said the plan is for two cohorts to launch Strong Beginnings classrooms next week for Cass County. The first cohort will begin at both Marcellus Elementary in Marcellus and Patrick Hamilton Elementary in Dowagiac with 14 children at each school.

“We understand families are hesitant regarding COVID,” Whitmire said. “We are operating with high sanitation and PPE standards. Our staff will wear masks. We’ll have handwashing moments in classrooms and social distance as much as possible. Data is telling us that young children are less likely than adults to spread coronavirus. We will be taking every possible precaution.”

In September, cohort two could include expansion to three other schools in the county currently supporting a GSRP or GSRP-Head Start classroom, with priority given to Edwardsburg and Cassopolis. According to Whitmire, children who enroll in Strong Beginnings are guaranteed entry as four-year-olds in the GSRP, ensuring two years of high-quality preschool at no cost to qualifying families.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “Students will be well-prepared for elementary school after two years in the program. We have two wonderful teachers ready to receive children.”

The classrooms will operate in person, Monday to Thursday, on a full day schedule, following the schedule of the host elementary school. There will be no virtual-only learning offered with Strong Beginnings. Child-safe transportation will be offered to families experiencing barriers to accessing the program due to location. All meals and snacks will be provided at no cost to families. To ensure high quality experiences as a model site, Strong Beginnings teachers will be supported by an Early Childhood Specialist and receive extensive training in supporting the developmental needs of their children using the HighScope Approach, an evidence-based curriculum based in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

The classrooms will feature a family liaison who works with families to support their goals and connect them to local services.

“They will monitor each family’s well-being during the process,” Whitmire said. “They will help them with education and basic needs like food, shelter and transportation.”

According to Whitmire, the district’s commitment to serving the needs of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians was a key factor in it being awarded the grant for the program.

“In the grant, we communicated our intention to collaborate with Pokagon Band as a system of support,” she said. “Mariah Green, one of our program’s lead teachers, is a Pokagon citizen. This weekend, we will be studying how to integrate native curriculum into early education. We want to work closely with the Pokagon Band according to their culture and needs.”

Whitmire encourages families in the Dowagiac to apply for the program.

“We think it is a great opportunity,” she said. “We really think that our goal is to serve our community, to bring out the greatest potential within children.”

Interested families are asked to call Lewis Cass ISD at (269) 445-6283 or apply online at greatstartcass.org.

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