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Special preeschool turns 20

Special preeschool turns 20

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Day care makes strides in helping developmentally disabled kids ease into kindergarten

Voices squealing, hands clapping and small bodies sitting on the edge of their chairs, tense with excitement.

Cake!

The 18 children enrolled in the University of Montana's CO-TEACH preschool afternoon session weren't around in 1979, but that didn't stop them from celebrating the program's 20th birthday last week.

They had reason to celebrate. CO-TEACH, which prepares developmentally disabled and other children, ages 3 to 5, for kindergarten, has 35 children enrolled in the morning and afternoon sessions this year. When the program first opened its doors 20 years ago, it served four disabled students.

"The second and third year of the program we grew to about 10 students each year, split evenly between disabled and nondisabled kids," said Rick van den Pol, director of the division of educational research and service and the CO-TEACH program at UM. "Now, our records show that we are somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 kids who've gone through the program in 20 years - and that may be a conservative estimate."

If anyone remembers those first few years as well as van den Pol, it's Susan Spencer. Formerly Susan Dark, Spencer was the school's first teacher 20 years ago and still recalls with joy her time spent at CO-TEACH.

"I remember the students so well," Spencer said while visiting the school last week. "I love them all. They were all great kids."

The celebration was also a reunion of sorts for Spencer. One of her former students at CO-TEACH, Linsey Keller, is now a university student teaching at the preschool. The two reminisced while gazing at a photograph of Keller's preschool class.

"I didn't recognize the room specifically when I first walked in here to work, but I knew that I had been here before," Keller said. "I remember little details, like the dramatic play area where we were able to act, the little cups from snack time, and the university students walking past us on the playground."

Spencer remembered snack time as well, but for different reasons.

"We had this really old table that about six kids sat around and that faced this rather dreary kitchen," she said. "I've seen a lot of facility changes since then."

Originally funded by a federal grant, CO-TEACH was founded as a preschool for developmentally disabled children to better prepare them for kindergarten.

"Twenty years ago there were no preschool services for disabled kids," Spencer said. "Through feedback from the schools we were able to modify the program to teach things the kids need to make the transition easier, like sitting quietly, raising your hand and standing in line."

Over time the school added children without disabilities to act as role models and assist with teaching behavior.

"The idea was to have kids the same age teaching appropriate behavior," Spencer said. "The more easily you can be like others the same age, the more easily you can integrate into society.

"Pretty soon, it's hard to tell which kids in the classroom are developmentally disabled and which kids aren't."

Now a school psychologist and administrator in New Orleans, Spencer said she still misses the classroom work.

"I could step right back into this easily, even though I haven't been a teacher in a classroom for 15 years," she said. "And part of the reason is the good work CO-TEACH does."

A nod of agreement came from van den Pol.

"One of the best indicators of a day care is watching a kid walk through the door," he said. "If they're happy when they get here, you're doing a good job - and that part hasn't changed in 20 years."

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