EDUCATION - TEACHING THE TEACHERS - Earning How Best to Teach Youngest

Article excerpt

PROVIDENCE - Marie Van Velzer has taught preschool for a quarter- century, helping 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds learn through play, investigation and hands-on activities.

It wasn't until this fall, however, that Van Velzer, 53, understood how to include master paintings in her daily art classes. Now she can help her students grasp the contrast of color and the flow of lines because she has learned about the principles and elements of design in a college course, "Methods and Materials in Art Education."

"I'd always wanted to use real artists' work with my children and I didn't know how," said Van Velzer, who is displaying a copy of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" in her classroom at East Bay Community Action Head Start in Newport. Each child emulates the dark background of the master work by using dark construction paper and then painting it with watercolors.

"It's amazing what they're doing," Van Velzer said.

Van Velzer is one of 19 early childhood educators who are receiving specialized training in their field through scholarships paid for as part of Rhode Island's $50-million federal Early Learning Challenge Grant.

The goal of the scholarship program is to help childcare providers and preschool teachers who have associate's degrees to take additional classes at Rhode Island College and potentially earn bachelor's degrees. Without the scholarship, such training would be out of reach, Van Velzer says.

The scholarships pay 90 percent of the teachers' course and book expenses, and some associated costs that have been identified as barriers. These include transportation stipends, $600 bonuses and up to 108 hours of "release" time from their jobs. The scholarships help cover the costs of substitutes so the teachers can study.

The scholarships amount to about $6,500 per person for five courses, according to Ready to Learn Providence, an early childhood organization that is overseeing the scholarship program.

Long a marginalized area of education, from birth to age 5 is now widely believed to be among the most critical periods for children's growth and learning. Nationally, there is pressure to strengthen the early education profession through improved training for teachers and to expand access to high-quality programs, particularly for low- income children.

"To really address the achievement gap between racial and social groups, you have to provide quality preschool, because it's more difficult to address those gaps once children enter kindergarten," said Alexander "Sasha" Sidorkin, dean of RIC's School of Education and Human Development.

Many low-income children enter kindergarten with vocabulary deficits that make it hard to catch up to their middle-class peers, for example.

"The argument has been made for years that these are actually the most important years in a child's development," Sidorkin said, "and in a perfect world, the most qualified educators would be working with them. …

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