In the preschool at Arlington Elementary School, “A” is for apple.
It also stands for app – as in application.
The 4-year-olds in this South Tacoma school are learning to use digital-world apps that turn their classroom iPads into reading, writing, spelling, speaking, coloring, counting and sorting tools.
Are mobile devices for preschoolers a gimmick? Not in teacher Stephanie Kay-Fredrickson’s mind.
She’s seen the power of iPads – with their colorful visuals and intuitive usability – to engage her students.
“It enhances instruction,” she says. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The Arlington children, along with kids at five other new preschools established by Tacoma Public Schools, are blazing a new educational path with the devices.
Kay-Fredrickson’s classroom is a mix of the high-tech and the traditional.
While six kids sit at a table with teaching assistant Dorene Cooper coloring pictures from classic storybook “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” another eight are at a separate table learning about their iPads. Later in the afternoon, the groups will swap places and tasks, so each child gets time with both the iPads and paper-based activities.
The teacher – the kids call her Miss Kay – explains what the iPad home key looks like.
“Can you see what shape it is?” she asks.
“A circle,” one boy says.
“It’s inside another shape,” Kay-Fredrickson prompts. “What is it?”
A square, the children answer.
She shows them how to open their iPads, press the home key and find the app they will use today.
One girl observes that the circle on the device’s home key reminds her of the letter “C” – the letter they have been focusing on lately.
Kay-Fredrickson asks students to press the home key, then guides them to an app that lets them trace the shape of a letter with their little fingers on the iPad screen.
The touch-screens are kid-friendly. Preschoolers might have trouble using a computer mouse, but they don’t need one with their iPads.
The lettering app provides immediate feedback; if a student traces the letter incorrectly, it prompts him or her to start over.
Some students are working only on capital letters, while others have progressed to lower-case letters. Kay-Fredrickson likes that she can use the iPads to offer each student the practice he or she needs.
One girl in the class is reluctant to hold a pencil but loves using her finger on the iPad, Kay-Fredrickson says. Even students who are English-language learners are doing well with the iPads, she adds.
On the first day of preschool, she asked students to write their names on paper. Some could manage only a scribble, while others could form some letters. She’s been tracking their progress week by week, and by late October the scribbles had transformed into readable printing.
Ben Gauyan, who oversees the new preschools and other programs for Tacoma Public Schools, said the iPads are preparing these preschoolers for their futures.
“This is where technology is going,” he says, noting that schools around the country already use electronic textbooks. They’re often cheaper than traditional books, and can be instantly updated.
“This is a new frontier. It’s exciting for us,” he says.
ACCESS TO ELECTRONICS
Tacoma’s newest preschools are aimed at kids in high-poverty neighborhoods – kids who may not have access to electronics at home.
But in addition to gaining access to technology, the preschools are teaching the social skills all kids need to succeed when they start school – everything from how to sit “criss-cross, applesauce” at circle time to how to line up when it’s time to visit the restroom.
It’s a chance to level the playing field for kids who may not have the same early-learning opportunities that their more affluent peers may take for granted.
When these students enter kindergarten next fall, Kay-Fredrickson adds, “they’ll have a whole year of preschool under their belts.”
The new preschools – paid for through a federal program known as Title I, which is aimed at helping kids in poverty – opened this year at Arlington, Boze, Mann, Stafford and Stanley elementary schools. Whitman Elementary already had a Title I preschool.
The preschools, which offer both morning and afternoon sessions, are free for children who live in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods. With more than 200 kids at six sites, the program is full. Gauyan would love to see it expand if more funding becomes available.
Helping kids get a good start in school is a priority set by the Tacoma School Board, and the new preschools are part of that plan.
This year, a federal waiver allowed Tacoma to redistribute some of its Title I dollars. The district tapped into money previously mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law to be spent largely with private vendors offering homework help and tutoring for older students.
The funding – an estimated $175,000 at each preschool, including a total of more than $48,000 for iPads – has been redirected to pay for staffing, materials and professional development. The district estimates that the preschool costs will drop to about $130,000 per site next year, since the equipment purchases and initial staff training will already be done.
While iPads are part of the new preschools’ design, they aren’t the only teaching tool.
Kay-Fredrickson reads to students. She has them respond to her questions and draw pictures based on stories they hear. They mark off school days on a monthly calendar. She and the children dance to music, act out animals and participate in other traditional preschool activities.
“We write every day,” she says. “We read every day.”
But at free choice time, kids vote with their feet. A few wander over to bins filled with Legos or wooden blocks, while others get busy in a kid-sized kitchen, setting the table with play dishes and plastic food.
But most make a beeline for the cozy classroom carpet, where they’re allowed to pull out an iPad and spread out on the rug. Some kids use an app that lets them color pictures of familiar animals and objects, while others opt for word games.
Anthony Breshears is beguiled by an app that lets him see a picture, then move letters into place to spell out the object pictured. He initially mixes up the “b” and “d” while trying to spell “bird.” But with a reminder from his teacher, he nails it.
When the four letters fall into place in the right order, the on-screen bird spins around, delighting Anthony.
“Yeah! I won!,” he shouts. “I wanna play again.”
BY THE NUMBERS: BEFORE K-12
Tacoma Public Schools launched five preschools this year by shifting dollars within the federal Title I program.
But they aren’t the school district’s only preschools.
29: The number of federally funded Head Start classrooms, spread over 16 Tacoma elementary schools.
9: The number of classrooms funded through Washington state’s ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program).
15: The number of preschool classrooms for children with special needs.
2: The number of Montessori preschools.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635