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Claremont featured in study of effective early childhood education

  • In the sensory room at the Claremont Early Childhood Program, Beth Chiasson, an occupational therapy assistant, walks through a set of experiences with student Giovanni Ferullo, 4, in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 29, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students at the Claremont Early Childhood Program in Claremont, N.H. are encouraged to use their fine motor skills when playing. Paraprofessional Danielle Smith helps student Harvey DeRosa, 3, snip putty on Jan. 29, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Beth Chiasson, an occupational therapy assistant, spends time with Colby Tessier, 4, in the sensory room at the Claremont Early Childhood Program on Jan. 29, 2019. The room is a place for students to settle down or pump up their energy, depending what a student may need. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Early childhood special educator Kristina Sanford works with students Harvey DeRosa, left, and Eli Alexander, both 3, at the Claremont Early Childhood Program on Jan. 29, 2019, in Claremont, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At the end of their morning session Terri Higbee, an early childhood educator, watches for rides with students at the Claremont Early Childhood Program on Jan. 29, 2019 in Claremont, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, February 04, 2019

To many people, the term “inclusive education” implies a one-way door through which children with special needs gain access to the learning community everyone else inhabits.

At the Claremont Early Childhood Program, the door swings the other way just as often. Set up for children with various special needs, the school has recently expanded its enrollment to include typically developing children. And these children benefit from having access to staff and resources that they might not get in another setting.

That’s just one of the ways the early childhood program is striving to give Claremont children a better start in school and in life. And it’s one reason the city was featured in a new report highlighting programs that serve the state’s at-risk children and challenges they face in reaching these children.

“We know what works. We have effective models. And yet the state resources aren’t there to ensure continuation,” said Diane Edwards, who has implemented numerous changes in her two years as director of the Claremont Early Childhood Program, including securing private grants to build a sensory room, to expand the school’s space and to upgrade its playground.

The program is featured in a new report prepared by the RAND corporation and commissioned by the Endowment for Health, a statewide non-profit foundation that focuses on the health of vulnerable populations. The report analyzed the ways New Hampshire communities are investing in early childhood, how well these investments are reaching the children who most need them and how additional resources could level the playing field for these children. To explore these issues on the ground, the author focused on four communities: Claremont, Manchester, Nashua and Coos County.

“Essentially what we did is took the data and kind of drilled down to the local level,” said Lynn Karoly, author of the report, titled Advancing Investment in the Early Years and released on Jan. 24. “It’s a way of seeing how communities approach early childhood education.”

The researchers chose Claremont, Karoly said, both for its incidence of risk factors for young children and the proactive work it’s doing in serving these children — much of which is happening at the Claremont Early Childhood Program.

Consolidating its two district preschools under one roof in the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center last year, the school has implemented research-backed practices aimed at reaching more children and improving their prospects. A key change was expanding its enrollment to include 50 percent children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 50 percent typically developing children.

Not only does this strategy ensure the school is meeting federal mandates to provide an inclusive environment, it can save the district money, said Edwards, who taught early childhood education at Eastern New Mexico University and was a director and teacher in the education program at Colby-Sawyer College before coming to Claremont. With early access to the school’s specialists, which include a speech-language pathologist and an occupational therapist, as well as classroom teachers who are certified in special education, children who are on the border of needing an IEP can sometimes avoid that outcome, Edwards said.

Attracting a broader range of children was not easy at first, so the school began offering free transportation, which helped bring enrollment to its capacity of 72 children. Since 2017, the school has also secured private and public grants totaling more than $40,000 to make improvements to the facility, including the sensory room, which has soft surfaces, muted lighting, plenty of space for burning off energy, and specialty equipment, such as a “compression canoe” and a “squeeze machine,” devices that help children soothe themselves by putting light pressure on their bodies.

“It’s the kind of thing that’s motivated by the children who have various kinds of learning disabilities ... but it’s also a resource that all the kids can take advantage of,” Karoly said.

The report also highlighted other Claremont organizations, including the One-4-All Family Space, a childcare facility and drop-in center for parents and children, and the TLC Family Resource Center, which provides, among other things, home-visiting services for families.

The RAND report emphasizes home visits as a key method for reaching at-risk children. “Home visiting grew out of the understanding of the importance of the early years and the family as the focal point as children’s first teachers,” Karoly said. “The idea was to start, ideally, with expecting mothers, to first ensure that she has the best possible birth outcome ... then you build this trusting relationship so that they can continue to work with the family through the next stages of the child’s development.”

The One-4-All Family Space attracted Karoly’s attention because it serves as a hub for a number of family services, illustrating the value of integrating services for young children, Karoly said.

Along with examining what communities are doing effectively, the report reveals shortcomings and challenges in the state’s efforts to serve its youngest demographic. To begin with, the need for intervention in the early years is not always evident.

New Hampshire ranks first in the nation on the 2018 Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count composite index of child well-being. But this ranking obscures the wide variability among and within communities. The statewide poverty rate for children under age 5 is 11.8 percent, while nearly 20 percent of children under 5 in Manchester and nearly 50 percent of children under 5 in Colebrook live in poverty. Nor does the need for robust preschool services correlate with availability, the report found.

Funding, not surprisingly, represents the biggest obstacle to reaching at-risk children. New Hampshire is one of seven states that don’t put state money into funding preschool. Vermont, by contrast, passed legislation funding universal access to pre-K programs in 2014. New Hampshire school districts are required to provide a free education to 3- and 4-year-olds in need of special education services and receive some federal funding to fulfill that mandate. School districts that reach out to the broader community do so by stretching funds.

Salaries for administrators and educators at the Claremont Early Childhood Program are roughly 20 percent lower than their K-12 counterparts, Edwards said. The school has no nurse or guidance counselor (children go to the nurse at the middle school next door when needed) and only a $2,500 budget for supplies. Along with the expiration of some key grants, the school is facing a proposed staffing cut of 1.5 positions for next school year, she said.

“The unique aspects that make us effective with kids might not be sustainable,” Edwards said.

The RAND report recommends that the state strategically fund quality early education programs and services in communities such as Claremont, where the need is great.

The report comes on the heels of a $3.8 million preschool development grant that the University of New Hampshire received from the federal government to fund research and create an early childhood care and education system.

Edwards is optimistic about such developments, but wonders what they’ll ultimately mean. “When does all of this get connected and result in funding?” she said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.