Preschool Program Looks to Help Military Families Facing Educational Gap that Widens with Each Move

Hampton Roads kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Eli Herold, 3, along with Meela Osorio, 3, and OLL Facilitator Kari Carnes, starts class by leading the group in the Pledge of Allegiance during March 8, 2023 morning’s Armed Services YMCA program "Operation Little Learners,” held at Little Creek Community Center and six other locations in Hampton Roads. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

Military families are no stranger to the phrase “force readiness.” But swap “force” with the words “social,” “emotional” or “academic,” and readiness can be a struggle for military-connected children preparing to begin kindergarten.

Active duty families typically relocate every three years. The frequent moves interrupt the development of children under the age of 5, creating gaps in what should be a solid foundation.

One local program works to fill in the developmental gaps that widen with each permanent change of station.

Laughter bounced off the walls of the Little Creek Community Center as about a dozen parents and children gathered Wednesday for week #9 of the Operation Little Learners program. Everyone — parents included — sat on the floor for “circle time,” where they went over the days of the week, counted to 15, learned the letter “Q” and talked about the cold, windy weather.

“What should we wear when it is windy?” the class facilitator asked the kids.

“A jacket!” exclaimed 3-year-old Eli Herold.

Just 4 months old when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world, the chatty toddler was once a shy introvert who wanted nothing to do with other children, educational games or arts and crafts, his mother, Brett Herold, said.

“A typical COVID baby,” Brett said. “When we first started, he would hide behind me and wouldn’t participate, but now he answers questions when asked, he sings ... He has really come out of his shell.”

The parent-and-me preschool readiness program — provided by the Armed Services YMCA of Hampton Roads — introduces active duty military children aged 18 months to 5 years to a classroom setting in which they learn letters, numbers, shapes, and developmental concepts. Two-hour-long classes are offered twice weekly for 13 weeks across seven Hampton Roads locations, stretching from Chesapeake up to Fort Eustis.

The reason behind the program, according to Tessa Davis, Early Education Director for ASYMCA, is because school readiness is not universally defined and no two preschool programs are identical across state lines.

“A family PCSing (permanent change of station) here from Florida might plan to put their child in VPK (voluntary prekindergarten program), but we don’t have VPK here. We have pre-K programs, but it is not like it is in Florida,” Davis said.

Congress passed the Interstate Military Compact Act in 2009, which ensures the child of an active duty service member is placed in classes consistent with the education he or she was receiving at their previous school. For example, if a student was taking an advanced placement course, the new school must place the student in an identical or comparable course without delay.

“But that doesn’t apply until you begin grade school. So, you might think you know what school readiness you can do, but it is just not going to happen,” Davis said.

According to Shanan Chappell Moots, a professor for Old Dominion University’s Center for Educational Partnerships, military families are hard-pressed to find a preschool program when they relocate, particularly to another state.

“While the content is largely the same, the scope and sequence might be different,” Moot said.

So while one curriculum is teaching numbers, another may be teaching the alphabet. And when a military-connected child is placed in another preschool, prepared to learn what number comes after 10, the curriculum may be focused on teaching the child what letter comes after M.

“It’s likely early preschool military-connected kids are missing chunks of instruction. Even if it’s just four or five days, maybe a week — those are the foundational skills they’re missing out on that they’re gonna have to recover at some point,” Moots said.

The program is about teaching the parents just as much as it is the children. While each session is led by a volunteer facilitator, a parent or guardian must participate in all 13 weeks of Operation Little Learners alongside their child, acting as his or her personal teacher.

“We are trying to push the teaching to the parent, to help the parent feel secure as their child’s first and best teacher. Active duty spouses might not know where they will be next school year. So it’s about having that security of knowing ‘I can do this and I have the abilities ... I don’t have to have a degree in education to teach my child,’” Davis said.

Two-year-old Avery Figueroa climbed into a small plastic chair. Kari Carnes, a facilitator for Operation Little Learners sessions, helped Avery push up the sleeves of her plaid footed pajamas before she dipped an index finger into the colorful palette of paint on the table and began tracing the letter of the day on a piece of paper.

“Before this program, she wouldn’t have had anything to do with finger painting or arts and crafts. Or should would have just put the paint right in her mouth,” said Sebastian Figueroa, Avery’s father, as he stepped back to marvel at her progress.

Sebastian and Avery have participated in two consecutive semesters of Operation Little Learners while Avery’s mother, Jessica Figueroa, has been deployed with the USS George H. Bush. This is the Figueroa family’s first deployment since Avery’s birth.

As a new dad, solo parenting for the first time, Sebastian said seeing Avery’s cognitive growth during the program guides his home teachings.

“This adds a nice little layer of how to reach her, as opposed to just figuring it out as I go,” Sebastian said.

As Avery painted, 16-month-old Jacob Herold sat on the floor playing with a piece of paper — the large “Q” printed across it colored with red, blue and green markers. While Jacob is too young to qualify for the program, he is allowed to tag along with his mother and brother. Jacob, his mother said, is already grasping concepts and participating in group activities.

The Herolds, an active duty Navy family, expect to relocate by January — right in the middle of the school year. Like most military families, they don’t know where they’re going yet.

“I have never moved with a kid before, so I am nervous. But we have the tools to bounce back,” Brett said.

The winter semester concludes the first week of April. There were 250 participants across Hampton Roads.

Registration for the new semester opens at 12 a.m. March 15. It can be accessed via the ASYMCA Hampton Roads Operation Littler Learner webpage. Classes will kick off April 15.

The program will expand next semester adding two additional locations — one at the Larchmont Library in Norfolk for all active duty families and another in the Norfolk Pointe community exclusively for Liberty Military Housing residents. The two additional locations will allow for around 50 extra spots, 25 at each, bringing the participant cap to 300 parents and children.

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