Preschool uses children’s passion to reach full potential

Finding the right early education program to meet a child's specific needs is not easy. Mary Oemig's son was particularly passionate and advanced in certain areas and not so much in others, so she spent a year looking at private schools, specialty schools and everything in between, but nothing seemed to work for her son, who is now 5 years old.

Vivek Prakriya concentrates on his task during a class at Reach Learning Community. Reach gives students the opportunity to pursue their passions while still learning the necessary skills to prepare them for school.

Vivek Prakriya concentrates on his task during a class at Reach Learning Community. Reach gives students the opportunity to pursue their passions while still learning the necessary skills to prepare them for school.

Finding the right early education program to meet a child’s specific needs is not easy.

Mary Oemig’s son was particularly passionate and advanced in certain areas and not so much in others, so she spent a year looking at private schools, specialty schools and everything in between, but nothing seemed to work for her son, who is now 5 years old. She said the curriculum didn’t fit his needs, he didn’t meet the age cutoff date, or a number of other things.

Oemig discussed her issues with Astrid Storas, who was on a similar search for her son, who is the same age as Oemig’s. Instead of becoming discouraged, the two women decided to start their own school. One year later, they founded Reach Learning Community, a nonprofit home schooling program that tailors to the unique learning needs of asynchronously developing children — asynchronous meaning developing faster in some areas and slower in others. The multi-age program opened in September and operates out of Marymoor Montessori School at 4244 Bel-Red Road in Redmond and offers individualized instruction that allows students to advance in their stronger areas and supports them in their weaker areas. Reach also allows the children to pursue their individual passions and interests.

“They’re not all passionate about the same things,” said Oemig, who is Reach’s executive director of programming. “But they are obsessed with their (own) things.”

She added that they use the children’s passions to drive instruction. For example, if a child loves music, they use music to teach other subjects such as reading and math.

Another aspect of the Reach program is called creative play, which involves the teacher reading a story to the children and having them later act out the story. The students plan and write the story and assign roles they must stay in for the whole reenactment. Creative play allows children to master executive function skills such as attention, memory and motor skills.

Storas, who is Reach’s vice president, said creative play gives students a set of universal problem-solving skills they can use to approach any situation.

“It’s almost like (giving them) the ability to start and finish something,” she said.

Reach is a hands-on program with two adults in the classroom — a certified teacher plus one assistant, usually a parent volunteer (each family is required to be involved in the program somehow). It is half-day program with classes Monday through Thursday with one day designated as a field trip day.

There are currently five students in class, but Oemig and Storas are accepting applications for the rest of the 2010-11 school year. Students must be between 3 and a half and 5 years old. Next year, Reach will be accepting students between 4 and 6 or 7.

Carolyn Kerr, the certified teacher for the program, said Reach is an extremely individualized program, so if and when classes grow, they will hire another teacher.

Kerr had taught in both public and private settings in Washington as well as Toronto and was looking for a part-time teaching position, but was very particular about where she wanted to go.

“I didn’t just want to work anywhere,” she said.

Kerr was drawn to Reach because the program is a cooperative and parents are very involved in everything, from planning the curriculum to implementing it in the classroom. She also liked that Reach is based off of the montessori method, a more hands-on approach to teaching. Students use materials instead of a paper and pen to learn and they are given more choice in their learning.

“It’s more tactile, which is great for this age,” Kerr said referring to her students. “Their work is something they’re doing independently. The teacher is more of a guide. It really is a unique program.”

Student achievement is assessed about every two months using a curriculum-based measurement system. Oemig said this allows them to see the students’ learning curves. This helps them see if their teaching methods are affective and then they adjust the curriculum accordingly.

Both Oemig and Storas said while academic achievement is a top priority, their main goal is to teach children how to learn and to keep them wanting to learn. This can be difficult for asynchronously developing children because things usually come easy for them in certain areas and so they just want to give up when things become difficult.

“For us,” Storas said. “The whole goal is ‘It’s fun to be in school.’ It has to be a fulfilling experience.”

For more information, visit www.reachschool.org.


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