Partners Prepared for Gibraltar’s Public 4K

The Gibraltar Area School District is one of only four in the state that does not provide a free, publicly funded 4-year-old kindergarten  program. That doesn’t mean, however, that kindergarten-prep programming has been unavailable in the district.

“We are not behind in educating 4-year-olds,” said Cindy Trinkner-Peot, executive director of Northern Door Children’s Center in Sister Bay, about her center and others near the north end of the peninsula. “In my tenure here, 95% to 99% of every child who goes to Gibraltar has had the experience either in Northern Door Children’s Center or Peninsula Preschool in Ephraim or at The Ridges.”

Northern Door Children’s Center has provided the equivalent of state-approved 4K programming since 2007 at a cost of $10 for three hours per weekday, or for free two days per week for parents who cannot afford that tuition. This year, Northern Door has 20 children in a 4K classroom, and this month, the Gibraltar school board was poised to give final approval to a one-year pilot program to provide 4K preparatory education in 2022-23 to 30 or more students, with half of them on the Fish Creek campus and half at the children’s center in Sister Bay.

Trinkner-Peot said she’s excited to partner with the district to help give children the emotional, social and educational foundation they will need in school, and the center is ready to tweak its curriculum to match programming at the Gibraltar campus for the next school year. 

Gibraltar Superintendent Tina Van Meer, who was in charge of 4K programming at a district where she previously served, wants to use the reading-oriented Heggerty curriculum and numbers-oriented Bridges program already used at Northern Door, and she also wants both Northern Door and Gibraltar to use the more comprehensive Sonday System.

“This is all about learning from each other and collaborating, and we have a well-established relationship with the early-childhood educators at Gibraltar because we already host their early-childhood program here for students who have special needs or individual education plans,” Trinkner-Peot said. “The big advantage of this collaboration is it will be publicly funded for parents to make sure that every child can have this experience regardless of their situation. And transportation will be a big positive for some people.”

Learning from Play

It’s 8 am on a Thursday, and Karen Corekin – the community relations director, education coordinator and a certified, licensed teacher at Northern Door Children’s Center – is leading five early birds in the 4K class in a play-based educational activity. Corekin notes that the curriculum followed at Northern Door provides instruction in game formats in five-minute spans – about the maximum attention span of a classroom of 4-year-olds.

They’re playing a game called Mat Man. She invites each child to pick up pieces of wood and foam in various shapes and sizes. The music starts, and they all know the words to the children’s song, so they sing along: “Mat Man has two ears, Mat Man has two ears, so he can hear.” Then whoever has the corresponding shape for the body part in the song places the shape down to add to the structure of the man. 

After they’ve put him together on a mat, some of the children pick up some of the shapes and start to make new shapes. Two girls head for a corner of the room, crawl under an easel and pretend they’re in a tent.

Corekin said the teachers just let the kids be creative and have fun after the somewhat structured learning game that typically lasts five minutes. The results – whether it’s playing with shapes or using blocks as measuring tools in other games and activities – are “astounding,” she said. 

“I think you can do the most good and affect children in the most positive ways working with children at this age,” she said. “A child’s brain grows to 75% of its adult size within the first five years.”

During a day, children may have four five-minute lessons. The teachers call lessons things like the “listening game,” and the children play along, learning words, rhythm, rhymes, shapes and sounds. Students also gain from “self-directed learning” when they pretend to cook in a kitchen, play with a dollhouse or build things from materials designed for construction or just “loose parts.”

“We use toys that create an open-ended learning experience – toys that children can use for multiple purposes,” Corekin said. “We call it ‘self-directed learning.’ We don’t have any electronic toys – toys that only do one thing. You give children materials rather than toys and see where they go with it.” 

The short lessons aren’t designed to feel like lessons for the children, yet they’re discovering how to work together and solve problems together, and learning about units of measurement, shapes, letters, words, sounds, rhyming, sequencing and more. At this stage, the teachers mainly want the children to know that learning is fun. 

“We have to be concerned about the whole child. It’s not just their cognitive skills – it’s everything,” Corekin said. “We want our children to go out into the world with this love of learning.”

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