New Harvest preschool creates a place where little ones can learn

Put a group of 4-year-olds in a room four times a week for a few months, and they just might teach you something.

One of the many folks behind New Harvest Christian Center's preschool in Battle Creek, Pastor Tina Lee, says, "It really is a blessing to see children being able to come together, to experience and learn from each other."

She adds, laughing, "If only the adults could do that, right? They really teach the adults." 

Lee, and husband, Pastor Ivan Lee, have learned a lot from their preschool's first session, which ended June 22. The children have shown that it's possible to, along with learning shapes and letters, learn from each other in a positive environment.

But first, New Harvest had to create that environment.

Filling a need

Since 2012, the Lees' church has put to use its 63,000-square-foot building, formerly the Battle Creek Enquire's shop on West Van Buren. From food drives to running a ride-to-work program, Lee's church has put deeds behind their words. 

"We try to stay engaged with the community as much as possible. That's part of our core mission. Our mission is to reach the unreached," Ivan Lee says.

Community demands made it clear to Lee that Battle Creek's youngest children were among the unreached. He kept hearing from parents, many of whom are single moms, saying that their children needed day care, needed a head-start before kindergarten.

Lee did the research. As a member of the BC Vision community development plan steering committee, Lee cites BCV's stats that found only 7 percent of the city's children are ready for kindergarten. To think that over 90 percent weren't ready for school "was just staggering to me," he says.

One can't expect a kindergarten student to be ready to learn after an unstimulated toddlerhood. "Overall, studies have shown that this is why there's a big push for early childhood education, your brain does the most development between zero and 5 years old," Lee says. "It's critical to try to get them into some type of formal education as soon as possible to stimulate that development."

The Battle Creek Vision plan cites Michigan Department of Education data showing that preschool programs help children "to be ready for kindergarten, more proficient in math and reading, less likely to repeat a grade, and more likely to graduate on time from high school."

Lee's church had the space and the project fit their mission. "So we just followed the course."

In 2015 they applied for and received a $225,000 W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant. Then followed a long process of licensing, remodeling, and getting in compliance with safety rules. "The licensing guy said, if it was easy, everyone would have one in their garage," Lee says.

New Harvest connected with the Calhoun County Great Start Collaborative, a non-profit devoted to early childhood development and education. The preschool became fully funded under the Michigan Great Start Readiness Program, and staff from the Calhoun branch coached New Harvest's teachers. "We'll continue to learn what they have to teach us," Lee says.

New Harvest brought in the HighScope preschool curriculum. The HighScope site calls it "active participatory learning." Lee says it's an interactive method where "the child guides you into the learning," based on the child's interests. "And there's quite a bit of evaluation to gauge the success." 

Learning shapes and learning to be social

Lee estimates that there is more than 800 preschool aged children in the city. "So that's quite a few to just leave at home or sit in that home with relatives." 

He knew they couldn't enroll them all, "but we at least wanted to make a dent."

The school began with 21 kids in January. "We were able to help kids who probably needed us the most. We had some who were in some homeless situations at the time, or at the shelter. And we had some being raised by grandparents, and we had other children who were kind of at-risk because of the employment of the parents--you know, a military child is considered an at-risk child because at any moment a parent may not come home because of duty," he says. 

The children came from a variety of backgrounds, not just low-income and urban, Lee points out.

"We've had so many kids that actually may be in a middle-class family, but they have no social interaction with other kids, which is a big issue because they don't know how to cope right, they're always fighting or struggling.... There are all sorts of issues involved, outside of their economic status," he says.

"The kids progressed just by having that social environment, being able to interact with other kids, and being able to expand their own knowledge in their letters and numbers, colors, and shapes."

Exposure to other children, learning through experience how to interact with kids outside of your own home and neighborhood, is a very important part of getting ready for a life of education, as well as a life as an adult.

"Not only that, it's just the whole process of realizing there are other ideals besides your own," he says. If exposure is limited to a family or neighborhood, "you may not realize that there are other people who are thinking differently than you are. So, exposure to other kids makes a huge difference."

Making a child's first classroom a positive space

Tina Lee emphasizes that having a positive environment is key for a child's first social experience outside of home and family. "That early start's important," she says.

Some of the kids showing up for the preschool's first session had no home, or were coming from a shaky family situation, so a positive experience was doubly important.

"We've had them coming from stable homes to coming straight from the shelter," she says. Sometimes, "they're a little bit upset, or confused." 

She's seen how the teachers work and does the same herself when she fills in as a substitute teacher: "The answer is showing love, and when they come in, we are approachable to them, to where they feel comfortable," she says. 

Their hope is, "the class will become a kind of safety net, their place of security. It's the only thing that most of them know to be secure in their life."

When a 4-year-old comes to their class from a homeless shelter, it's essential "to greet them with open arms and express that we appreciate them coming, and we're happy to see them. So that changes the child's attitude, they feel more accepted in their environment no matter what their culture is."

For her, it's been a blessing to see children of many different backgrounds "come together, to share, to be happy and have a great learning experience together."

"Everybody's coming from different places," she says. "We had one child who'd moved from Japan, so he was just learning English." 

"Him being able to share puzzles and toys while able to strengthen his vocabulary, I think that was an amazing to see, as well as seeing him make friends and to be able to socialize." 

It sounds like, along with shapes and colors, numbers and letters, New Harvest's preschool is teaching the kids that the classroom environment can be a good place, that it's not something to fear or hate.

"Exactly," she says.

To Enroll

Preschool at New Harvest Christian Center will begin making home visits with parents Sept. 19. To enroll, parents and guardians should apply through Calhoun County Great Start or 269-660-1606 ext. 6142.

New Harvest is only accepting 4-year-olds at this time.

Mark Wedel is a freelance writer in Southwest Michigan who's covered a bewildering array of subjects since 1992. For more information, visit here.
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