The Lottie Thornton Early Childhood Center, in the College of Education and Human Development, recently received an A-rating from the Mississippi Department of Health Childcare Licensure Department. This year’s inspection was conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ironically, there was more pressure hosting an inspection virtually than the traditional walk-through inspection, said Dr. Kanesha Bennett, director of Lottie Thornton.” Nevertheless, we were able to maintain our A letter grade as we’ve had since I took on the role of director in 2017.”
Like most education destinations during the pandemic, Lottie Thornton is offering preschool virtually. Bennett says it was critical for her and staff members to develop a plan that combined virtual and hands-on learning opportunities for their preschoolers.
“I will admit that this was not an easy task. While the circumstances were unique, all areas of child development had to be supported,” she says.Deja Johnson, who teaches the 3-year-old group, shares that she misses in-person instruction with the students. “However, safety is our number one priority, and learning still has to take place.”
Johnson adds that children deserve an opportunity to learn despite the pandemic. As a teacher, she says it is her goal to make sure students have a high-quality early learning experience.
“This pandemic has truly given me even more reasons to be thankful. I can definitely say the good outweighs the bad in this crisis,” she explains. “My colleagues, students and their families are safe, children are learning, and I can virtually see the progress of my students. Despite all, keeping them safe, happy, engaged and progressing is the end goal.”
Bennett admits that the greatest challenge of virtual preschool is student engagement. To assist, Bennett encourages families to limit their children’s screen time by replacing it with more authentic interaction between parent and scholar.
“It was critical that we developed a schedule that not only imitated the classroom schedule that our students were accustomed to but a schedule with both restroom and snack breaks. We created a schedule that incorporated a lot of movement and music,” adds the director.
Recently, Lottie Thornton integrated Little Stompers into their lesson plans. The music program by Second Line Arts Collective is one of many ways Bennett says students stay involved.“As early childhood practitioners, we understand that music ignites all areas of child development and school readiness. Learning virtually as a preschooler is not an easy task,” shares Bennett. “Teaching preschoolers virtually is not an easy task. Implementing an extracurricular program such as Little Stompers will allow the students to engage with one another and the instructors while learning through music.”
Tameka Moses, preschool teacher, says daily Zoom sessions and special classroom events also help make the virtual learning experience enriching, positive and fun.
“I am able to teach major core subjects while also allowing my students to participate in art, music and physical education,” says Moses, adding that students, teachers and families are at the heart of everything the center does.
“I am excited and committed to helping everyone have positive learning experiences, whether online or in school.”
Bennett says the center has always advocated for parent involvement. With parents working remotely and siblings learning virtually, Bennett emphasizes that it was critical to provide timely information to assist parents with setting up virtual learning stations.
“This included preparing learning packets, school supplies and learning resources for families, eliminating printing and additional cost on their behalf. We are continuously striving to maintain strong relationships with our families,” she says.
Ongoing parent communication is also vital to the success of young learners, Bennett explains.
“Last month, we conducted parent-teacher conferences via Zoom. Digital tools and technology have been very beneficial during this transition for both staff and families.” (story continued below picture)
Brittany Avery, the mother of a Lottie Thornton preschooler, says her biggest issue is making sure her child remains focused on the computer. However, she praises Lottie Thornton staff for their dedication.
“Whenever I have a question about anything, Dr. Bennett and Mrs. Moses are always helpful, especially when I’m asking for suggestions to enhance my child’s education. Overall, everyone has made a smooth transition from being on campus to having class on the computer.”
Angela Samuels describes the center’s virtual learning as “amazing.” At the onset of the pandemic, she voiced concern about her son Christopher Jr.’s education. However, she says, Lottie Thornton’s virtual classes during the spring kept him engaged and provided a sense of normalcy in uncertain times.“This fall, the Lottie Thornton staff exceeded expectations. They provided all the resources needed and organized it by weeks. Ms. Johnson and Dr. Bennett are so invested that they will take time out of their schedule to bring the supplies by our home,” Samuels explains. “They have created opportunities for engagement like Friday movie days and pumpkin decorating, where they not only provided the supplies, but they include our oldest daughter, who is a proud alumna of Lottie Thornton.”
Samuels shares her amazement at how much her 3-year-old son has learned this year. Three months into virtual learning, her son can spell his name and recognize numbers and letters.
“We are very grateful for Ms. Johnson and Dr. Bennett. They have provided Christopher Jr. with structure, routine and expectations. He is excited about learning and attending school daily,” she says. “The education he is receiving may not be face-to-face, but it is just as rigorous and impactful.”
Preschool parent Akia Dubose expresses similar sentiments. Dubose says her daughter engages in the daily lessons, makes new friends virtually and has increased her data retention.
“She loves to recite things she’s gone over in class. Her teacher is loving, patient and kind. She keeps the parents in the know of what the children need to be prepared for class, events and/or concerns,” she says. “I am thankful for the staff at Lottie W. Thornton Early Childhood Center for making the virtual experience quite pleasant.”