PUTNEY — Well before Gov. Peter Shumlin's 2013 initiative to expand the number of pre-school programs in Vermont, Putney Central School had put a pre-K program in place.
Herve Pelletier, PCS principal, explained the genesis of the PCS program, which is open to 4 year oldyear.
"My first year here, in July 2010," he said, "I learned that Head Start (a federal early education program providing comprehensive services to low-income children and their families) would no longer be in this building. They cited low enrollment figures as the problem. I thought, 'Oh-oh, no pre-school program."
So Pelletier consulted with members of the PCS board and staff members, and they set up a study committee.
"We knew we wanted a pre-school, and we could not rely on outside providers," he said. "We took it slow. We wanted the program to be successful right out of the box.
"It's important for 4 year olds to come to a more formal school setting and learn what it means to be 'in school,'" he continued. "As 4 year olds transition to being 5 year olds, they'll already have in place the school routines, they'll know the hallway etiquette. They'll be ready for kindergarten emotionally and behaviorally."
The group did some research, including a needs survey, and used the resources of Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, which awarded PCS a two-year grant — $30,000 the first year and $15,000 the second year — to help offset startup costs. At Putney town meeting in 2011, voters passed a school budget that included a full-day, fully funded pre-school for the academic year. Within a couple of years, the program was enrolled to capacity (16 students), "and we already know we're full for next year," Pelletier said.
Aimee Levesque, now the second grade teacher at PCS, served for three years as the program's original lead teacher, assisted by first by Maggie Hansen, then by Lauren Perlstein, who now serves as the PCS librarian.
Valerie Kosednar is in her second year as the lead teacher in the pre-school program. She credits Levesque with establishing a quality program that Kosednar is thrilled both to continue and to build upon.
"We have an exciting curriculum," Kosednar said. "It's emergent curriculum, which means we have the freedom to go with the children's interests and inclinations. That's not as easy to do as kids get older."
Originally from the Midwest, Kosednar taught music to early childhood and elementary students for 20 years.
"I was teaching music and movement," she said. "I fell in love with preschoolers. They're not exactly like kindergarteners. Then I moved from teaching music to teaching kindergarten at Westminster Center School for five years, but I wanted more freedom for play and exploration."
When Kosednar saw there was a pre-school opening at PCS, she was thrilled.
"I thought, 'I will get to have a play-based approach to learning,'" she said. "And the PCS school forest was a big draw," because of the opportunities it offered for outside activities and investigation.
Because of her background, Pelletier said, Kosednar is able to incorporate music into every day's plan.
"We have music all day, songs and movement games," Kosednar said. "It's instinctive for me. My real focus is music, movement, and the arts. We have small group activities and different formats, such as centers. We might have five different things going on. I intuitively understand this age."
Mary Seekins, Kosednar's assistant, "has a wealth of experience from running her own independent daycare and also working at Early Education Services," according to Pelletier.
Jack Millerick, whose own children have been stand-out athletes in the district, and who has coached basketball at PCS, assists in the pre-school program four hours daily, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
"We're like a big family, and I'm 'Pops,'" he said.
A parent who has had two children in the PCS pre-school program, Meghan Houlihan, said in an email interview that the quality of the education in the pre-school "has easily matched, if not surpassed, any you would find at a private institution in the area. Furthermore, the fact that the preschoolers can make use of the school's resources — the community gardens, the school forest, the art, music, and gym teachers, and so forth — makes for an extremely diverse and rich curriculum."
Her younger son, she said, entered the pre-school the first year of the program at the same time his brother entered PCS kindergarten. This arrangement was ideal because it gave the younger boy an opportunity to discover himself independently of his older brother but in an environment that felt safe, with his brother nearby.
This year, Houlihan's daughter is in the pre-school program, and it is a "match made in heaven," Houlihan said, because one of her daughter's passions is music, and Kosednar makes music a big component of the classroom.
"Like Aimee (Levesque), Valerie (Kosednar) is very strong at differentiated learning and has encouraged my daughter in her academic interests as well as social ones," Houlihan said.
To be eligible for the pre-school program, the student must live in Putney and be turning four by Sept. 1.
Very few schools in Vermont, Pelletier noted, have a full-day pre-school program that runs on a regular school-day schedule for the whole academic year.
"The good news is most of the kids in pre-school stay in PCS," he said. "Our school enrollment, although down from 10 years ago, is stable. People want to come here. In this pre-K to grade eight environment, having the young children in the building actually helps the older kids develop a genuine sense of empathy. I believe that very strongly."
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.