In nearly every child’s classroom in America hangs a chart. These charts vary in size, shape, décor, and even in the content of the data they measure. Some represent good behavior or kind deeds; others may gauge academic accomplishments or completed assignments. These charts are indeed public records, intended to provide visual accountability and encouragement, but they are also deeply personal for any child whose name appears on one of the rows – because those rows are meant to be filled with gold stars.
Some children see an empty row next to their name at the beginning of the school year and see hope, possibility, and potential. These children know that it’s only a matter of time before the teacher will peel star after star from a shiny sheet of stickers to reward their success. There are some children, however, who have never seen a gold star by their names. For these children, this chart can be an unfamiliar and intimidating reminder that perhaps gold stars aren’t meant for them.
Many children living in poverty in Eastern Kentucky believe that gold stars aren’t meant for them. Due to various circumstances, including fractured family units, unidentified special needs and learning disabilities, lack of access to basic resources and support systems, unstable home environments, and parents with limited levels of education, some of these children are facing overwhelming challenges before they ever set foot in a classroom. The high school completion rate in some Eastern Kentucky counties is as low as 64 percent, much lower than the national average of 86 percent, which means that many children are born into a generational cycle of academic stagnation. In spite of the educational obstacles facing children in need in Appalachia, Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), through its Child and Family Development Centers, is making sure each of them know that gold stars are meant for them.
CAP operates two Child and Family Development Centers (CFDC) in Eastern Kentucky – Eagle CFDC in McCreary County and Family Life CFDC in Rockcastle County. Central to the myriad of interconnected services provided by these centers are their highly commended preschools. Over the course of the past few years, the staff and volunteers of these preschools have worked diligently to become the top early-care and education programs in their respective counties. In May 2017, both centers achieved the highest possible rating by Kentucky’s All STARS program, a designation that cannot be overstated in its significance.
Both the Eagle and Family Life CFDCs were awarded a Five Star rating, making them the premier early childhood education centers in the region. The criteria for assessment in this program is comprehensive, extremely rigorous, and focuses on areas like curriculum, child safety, instructor-to-child-ratios, and facility specifications. These standards are above and beyond any form of accreditation or licensing requirements and demand attention to detail, continued professional development, and excellence in every single aspect of early childhood education. CAP is one of the few organizations in the region with the resources, staff, and volunteers to even attempt such an accomplishment.
There is a direct correlation between the Five Star ratings received by CAP’s CFDCs and the number of gold stars they are helping children and families achieve through their programming. Brinda Campbell, manager of Eagle CFDC, explains, “One of the major things that makes us uniquely successful is the fact that we see the children and serve the children four full days a week. That consistency makes a big difference for these children. It’s also the love that this staff radiates – the children know that they truly care about them and their families.”
Sharon Goff, manager of Family Life CFCD, offers some other insight into what makes CAP’s early childhood services so exceptional. “We do family activities and provide parenting and developmental information and resources to equip families for success. We work closely with the whole family and advocate for them and their particular needs. Through CAP’s other programs we are able to offer a web of additional services – winter coats from Grateful Threadz, home repairs from the Housing Program, Christmas baskets through the Family Advocacy Program – whatever we can do to support each family and each child.”
By developing a depth of trust with each child and family, CAP’s CFDC staff and volunteers are able to build their instruction, care, and development plans on a personalized level. One of the demographics most served by CAP’s centers is children with special needs. According to Goff, “Of 31 students, 26 will be classified as special needs. And that could be as simple as speech or it could be something like a behavioral disorder or autism.”
Staff work at the beginning of each year to identify each child’s development level and any special needs that may have yet gone undiagnosed and then work with other specialists to develop an individualized plan for success. Campbell explains, “The first thing teachers do is test each child to define exactly where that child is in relation to where that child needs to be. They start working with the child in the specific areas in which they need growth. Children who may need speech therapy or who may have a developmental delay are identified through our initial testing and we are able to get them the resources, support, and help they and their families need immediately. Teaching strategies are catered to each child’s need and the instructors are constantly updating notes on progress made.”
Every child’s progress is tracked meticulously throughout the year through observation during carefully planned activities designed to demonstrate progress in each learning domain, preparing them for kindergarten by the time they complete preschool. And prepared they are. It’s difficult to put into perspective the success of CAP’s CFDCs in relation to state and county percentages when it comes to kindergarten preparedness rates. In the state of Kentucky, only half of school-age children are ready for kindergarten. In Rockcastle County, 43 percent of children are kindergarten-ready, while 67 percent of Family Life CFDC graduates are ready.
In McCreary County, only 39 percent of school-age children are prepared for kindergarten compared to a whopping 78 percent of the graduates of Eagle CFDC.
In addition to preschool, each CFDC has a home-based component that works with children from infancy through preschool and beyond. The Parents are Teachers program in Rockcastle County and the Infant Toddler Program in McCreary County are focused on early intervention and preschool preparation. The after-school SPARK (Scholastic Preparation, Arts, and Recreation for Kids) program at Eagle offers school-age students activities, nutritious snacks, homework support, and even college tours. For some high school graduates in McCreary County, CAP is a part of their educational experience from the moment they are born until the day they receive their diploma.
For Goff, the hardest part of her job is when she has to narrow the list for enrollment at Family Life. “We’re always filled to capacity and we maintain a waiting list that is two years out. It’s always difficult to tell a parent or grandparent that there are no open spots.”
CAP’s leadership intends to make space for even more children by operating and/or partnering with five additional development centers over the next 30 years. This will be a massive undertaking requiring the support of donors, partner organizations, and volunteers, but if Five Star centers like Family Life and Eagle are any indication, it is a vision well worth the investment. Every child CAP prepares for the classroom is one more child who will see an empty row next to their name on a chart and see hope, possibility, and potential – they will see gold stars in their future.