Children learn and mature by being exposed to people who differ from themselves, and Kyrene School District is offering an opportunity for children to learn valuable life skills through its preschool program that places typically developed children in the same classroom as children with special needs.

At Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School, Patricia Smith’s morning preschool class is made up of seven typically developing children and seven special needs children.

“This is an invaluable program that teaches acceptance and tolerance of special needs,” Smith said. “When the children learn compassion in preschool, it will be natural for them when they meet special needs kids in their future classes.”

While the program is designed to foster tolerance, it also provides leadership opportunities for the typically developing students. Potential candidates are screened for leadership and role model potential before being admitted into the program.

“The typically developed children become role models for the special needs children, and it’s hard to put into words how they are able to help their friends,” Smith said. “They are so accepting and kind.”

Ahwatukee Foothills resident Jackie Vatis sent her son to KSD’s preschool, and he has prospered this year in kindergarten.

“Preschool prepared him for the structure and listening skills he would need for starting kindergarten,” Vatis said. “He knew what circle time meant, as well as how to play with and respect others.”

Vatis was attracted to KSD’s program because of its small class sizes and the fact that the teachers got to know the parents well. Now that her son has completed the preschool program, she volunteers as a helper in the classroom.

“They’re like sponges at this stage,” she said. “They don’t even realize how much they’re learning.”

In addition to the main teacher, there are two instructional assistants in KSD’s preschool classrooms at all times. One day each week there is also a speech pathologist.

The typical and special needs children learn at different speeds, and sign language and picture schedules are used to help the special needs children understand what is going on.

“There are those who get it, and others who don’t get it right away eventually do,” preschool teacher Smith said. “The picture schedules of our activities really help the special needs children pick things up.”

Class sizes in KSD’s preschool program range from 14 to 16 students. Morning and afternoon classes are offered, and each lasts two-and-a-half hours. For a list of preschool locations and program applications, visit www.kyrene.org.

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