News Column

Arts, science centers join forces to help preschoolers succeed

August 29, 2014

By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel



Aug. 29--Hoping to narrow the achievement gap for children in poverty, Orlando Science Center and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts are teaming up to introduce hundreds of disadvantaged preschoolers to arts and sciences.

The partnership, announced Thursday, will target preschool students from Parramore's Nap Ford Community School and Washington Shores Head Start program as well as their teachers and families.

"This can be that spark in a child's life, that opportunity, that starts a child down the path towards something great," said JoAnn Newman, the science center's president and CEO. "We're a place where kids can explore, where they can discover things that create a hunger for learning. Our goal is to nurture that instinct."

The program, called Project WoW, World of Wonder, is being bankrolled by a three-year, $400,000 grant from The PNC Foundation, the charitable arm of a financial-services group that expanded into Central Florida five years ago. Nationally, the foundation has made early-childhood education its top cause, funneling $350 million into the decade-old initiative.

"If you look at underserved children entering kindergarten, they probably [have] the vocabulary of a 31/2-year-old. So there's an 18-month gap to start with, and it doesn't get any better," said PNC Regional President Joe Meterchick. "The likelihood that they'll ever catch up [without intervention] is pretty much nil. We can't let that happen."

Already, educators from the science and arts centers have begun working with the preschool teachers to introduce them to the program's lesson plans and activities. The staff members also will go into the classrooms weekly to lead workshops, and parents are being encouraged to participate in at-home activities and field trips.

This fall, the science center will host a Celebrate Science Night for the families, and in January the Dr. Phillips Center will bring them in for a performance of "The Ugly Duckling & the Tortoise and the Hare."

For the Dr. Phillips Center, the project comes even before its official opening in November, President Kathy Ramsberger noted.

"We are thrilled," she said. "This ties directly into our mission of making a difference in the community."

For each of the program's three years, about 140 preschoolers will participate. The lessons will be filled with hands-on activities that younger children, especially, find most engaging and that will marry the concepts of science and art. One session, for instance, involves the blending of different-colored liquids to see the transformation.

"The kids love this type of thing," said Teresa Williams, director of the Washington Shores Head Start center. "And we truly believe this will give them the higher-ordered critical-thinking skills and social skills they need to succeed in life."

Orange County School Board member Rick Roach, who also spoke at the announcement, called the opportunities provided by the program "spectacular."

"We have kind of a K-12 mentality in public education," he said, "but all you need to hear is one piece of what happens in brain development prior to kindergarten, all the way back to the womb, and now you have a whole different picture of what a community needs. I'm convinced that this is where it's at."

But with 65 percent of Orange public-school students now qualifying for the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program, Roach said the job is hardly done.

"I guarantee some really special kids are going to come out of this," he said. "But we've got more work to do."

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503407-420-5503

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(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)


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