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Preparation and partnerships: Community Impact Fellows provide vital support to preschool children, parents

Elon’s Kenan Community Impact Fellows program is a second service year initiative that pairs recent graduates with community organizations. 

Winna Pumhirun '16 guides children through preschool programming at Newlin Elementary. 

To see the impact Winna Pumhirun ’16 is having through an innovative community education initiative launched by Elon last year, look no further than the faces of the smiling children gathered around her at Newlin Elementary School in Burlington as she reads to them. Look at the proud faces of the parents sitting in kindergarten-sized chairs behind them.

That’s the difference that Elon’s Kenan Community Impact Fellows program is having less than a year after launch, as its first cohort of fellows have become immersed in preschool education to help address an unmet need in the surrounding community. Since last fall, these three fellows have been working with Alamance County children who otherwise would have missed out on vital preschool instruction.

And beyond helping prepare children to enter kindergarten, the program seeks to assist parents so they can support their children’s educational journey.

“The whole idea is empowering parents and families and guardians,” said Pumhirun, who spends two nights each week working with children and their parents or guardians. “What a lot of parents don’t realize is they are their child’s first teacher. Parents underestimate the power of what they can teach their children.”

Elon’s Community Impact Scholars Program was launched during the summer of 2015 with support from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust. The program’s first cohort of fellows, which also includes Takeva Mitchell ’16 and Keeyatta Russell ’16, spent their senior year at Elon conducting research and preparing to work on literacy and numeracy with preschool children and their parents in high-need elementary schools in Alamance County. Along with Newlin Elementary, fellows are working with children and parents at Eastlawn and Andrews elementary schools in Burlington.

A parent works with her child during the Community Impact program at Newlin Elementary. 

​The program is a second major service year initiative at Elon, and follows the successful Elon-Alamance Health Partners program that pairs recent graduates with community health partners. For both programs, Elon provides a modest stipend, health insurance and housing while community partner organizations offer additional support.

The Community Impact Fellowship builds upon the work of Elon’s “It Takes a Village” project that pairs Elon students and faculty with students in the Alamance-Burlington School System to assist with literacy. Jean Rattigan-Rohr, executive director of community partnerships and director of the Center for Access and Success at Elon, said the fellowship allows Elon and its partners to respond to the need for kindergarten preparedness.

Each year, the school system sees hundreds of children on the wait list of public preschool programs, with families often not able to afford to send their children to private programs. “We realized that many of our students were coming to kindergarten not really prepared,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “The fellows work with children and their parents on everything from emergent literacy, beginning numeracy as well as nutritional information.”

Russell, who has been working with children and parents at Eastlawn Elementary, has personal experience with the challenges that can come with landing a spot in preschool, having missed out on a publicly offered program when she was young. “Fortunately, my mother ran an in-home daycare where I learned all the things I needed to be prepared for kindergarten,” she said. “That is not the case for a huge percentage of students in our community.”

For two hours on Monday and Wednesday nights at Newlin Elementary, Pumhirun runs through a curriculum that is essentially a compressed day at preschool, but with the added benefit of a breakout session for parents. “They come in and play with their peers, and once everyone has arrived, we do your typical school morning meeting,” Pumhirun said.

Reading is followed by small group activities led by Pumhirun and an assistant, with parents working side-by-side with their children on reading and numeracy. “We try to encourage the families to take the lead and play the teacher role, and we step back and coach them through it,” she said. “It’s a great way for them to get involved in school from the start.”

Winna Pumhirun '16 works with children, parents and caregivers during preschool programming at Newlin Elementary. 

​For the second half of each night, parents meet collectively with Pumhirun, who helps guide them through various parenting topics, such as bedtime routines and nutritional guidance — tips that can help make sure children arrive at school prepared to learn. During a session last fall, Pumhirun offered tips on establishing a morning routine to prepare for school by working backwards from the time a child needs to be at school, including a daily “to-do” list.

“If you have these visual clues, it will help them understand what comes next,” Pumhirun advised. “If you have a schedule, there’s no gray area with them.”

One of the parents tapping into this new resource is Kelly Morgan, whose 4-year-old daughter Kelcee is one of Pumhirun’s students. After Kelcee was unable to secure a spot in a program that would meet their needs, Morgan said she was eager to try the program established by the Community Impact Fellowship.

“We were definitely interested because we want Kelcee to have exposure to other children and make sure we’re on the right track,” Morgan said.

Morgan said the program wouldn’t be a good fit for parents looking for all-day preschool, but said it works perfect for the schedule she and her husband have, while giving parents a way to be personally involved in preparing children for school. “The parents can now nurture whatever the child is being taught,” Morgan said. “The parent session offers a forum where parents can talk about issues and concerns, or triumphs and successes.”

Takeva Mitchell, a Community Impact Fellow who worked with students and parents at Andrews Elementary this year, said it’s been a life-changing experience for her, and those she has worked with. “I have had the opportunity to teach 4- and 5-year-olds so many things — literacy, math, reading comprehension, social and emotional skills,” she said. “I am excited to see how the program grows in the community and the changes ABSS will see from these students once they are enrolled in kindergarten.”

Rattigan-Rohr said the program is adapting during its first year, including ensuring that the fellow-student ratio is correct. Each class typically has about 10 children, which seems to be the right size, she said. The curriculum is also being tweaked to ensure that children and parents alike are obtaining the resources they need to be prepared.

Russell said she’s seen phenomenal growth during the school year by the children she’s worked with and their parents, noting that she’s learned just as much from them as they likely have from her. “Our saying throughout the year for this program was ‘we are building the plane while we fly it,” she said. “Although it wasn’t easy, our plane reached unimaginable heights this year!”

The fellows have become “embedded in the culture of the school,” and gather together regularly to compare notes, Rattigan-Rohr said. “The idea is to look at the child holistically,” she said. “We see it as a partnership, and we always want to get feedback and a sense of the parent impact.”

Four graduating seniors who currently assist Pumhirum, Russell and Mitchell, have been selected as the next batch of Community Impact Fellows. For the 2017-18 school years, these new Fellows — Oscar Miranda, Zoe Sachs, Crystal Carroll and Rachel Gledhill — will continue to build upon the work started by the first Community Impact cohort.

Owen Covington,
4/12/2017 11:20 AM