Project Reach is an aptly named program - educators reach out to special-needs preschoolers to help them get a good start reaching their full potential.
Open to eligible children aged 3 to 5, the free program provides a variety of services for preschoolers who function significantly below their age level in cognitive development, social and emotional skills, language, fine and gross motor development or adaptive (self-help) skills, said Cathie Justen, special education director for the Columbia County.
"We have excellent teachers and service providers. It really makes a difference," Justen said.
While they learn and play, the preschoolers work on skills needed for kindergarten under the guidance of a variety of specialists including teachers, speech and language pathologists, and occupational or physical therapists. Children might also receive guidance from educators specializing in vision and hearing.
"We are trying to maximize their functioning and help them develop to their full potential," said Barbara Wilson, pre-kindergarten special education program case manager.
In the classroom setting, teachers offer individual and group activities that cover the areas of concern, said Fiona Pike, preschool special educator.
"We work on various units and tie in different skills that the children need through art, circle time, music and reading," she said.
Educators tailor their programs to challenge the children and help them increase valuable skills needed for the next level of education.
"We have to have high expectations; we want to see these kids succeed," said Kim Thornhill, preschool special educator. "It's wonderful to get them younger. When we have them at 3, and then the next year at 4, it's amazing the progress they make."
Early intervention is key to success, agreed Beverly Turbyfill, preschool special educator.
"If we can find those gaps and close them early, children can go forward with minimal or no support," she said. Her student Landon Thornton, 4, is such a success story.
"We have done a good job closing the gap. He is ready for kindergarten," Turbyfill said.
"It's unreal how much progress he has made in two years," said Landon's mother, Toisha Keaton.
"Now he is on grade level with his peers. He's ready to go to 'big school,"' she said.
Children enrolled in the program may attend a preschool class at Greenbrier, Stevens Creek or Grovetown elementary schools, or they can be served through their day care centers, or even at their homes.
"All programs are individually tailored to the needs of the child," Wilson said. "We're looking at the least restrictive environment."
Referrals come from physicians, the health department, day care centers, parents, or the early intervention program, Babies Can't Wait.
"Anyone in the community who sees a need a family may have with a child can make a referral to our school system," Justen said.
Currently, the program serves 130 preschoolers and has grown in recent years as the county's total population has grown, Justen said.
Out of about 20,000 Columbia County students, about 2,000 are enrolled in some aspect of special education, which reflects the national average of 10 percent, Justen said.
To make a referral or request testing for a child, call 868-3699, ext 257.
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