Opus Foundation® Supports Early Childhood Education in St. Louis

2/9/2017

Numerous studies have shown children who begin learning at an early age have improved social skills, fewer behavioral problems, are more likely to graduate high school and become life-long learners and less likely to become involved in crime during their adolescent years. Early childhood education is one of the Opus Foundation’s focus areas for good reason. Supporting an organization like the Early Childhood Center at North Side Community School (NSCS), fits not only the Foundation’s focus area but also its goal of connecting to the communities in which associates live and work.

NSCS is an elementary school located in North St. Louis City where 100% of students qualify for free lunch, 98% are African American and more than 85% live in zip codes with some of the highest crime and poverty rates in St. Louis City. The school focuses on the whole child, offering exceptional academic programs, as well as enrichment through art, music and cultural experiences; consistent physical education; extracurricular opportunities; and social and interpersonal development.

In 2011, school administrators noticed many incoming kindergarteners were far behind their peers who had early education experiences. Less than a year later, the Early Childhood Center was established with 15 students and one classroom. It has since grown to 45 students and three classrooms. Most pre-K children enter the program with little-to-no academic experience; more than half don’t know basic colors, numbers or how to write their names. The center places a strong focus on English language arts and mathematics, teaching students the basics and how to be students by listening and learning to follow directions.

Unlike the elementary school, the Early Childhood Center does not receive state funding. Rather, it is privately-funded by individuals, foundations and corporations. In late 2016, the Opus Foundation awarded a $27,500 Impact Fund grant to support an innovative new program for pre-K children that will be instrumental to the Center’s continued growth and that of the children it serves. 

Before the Opus Foundation grant, the NSCS pre-K program used a kindergarten curriculum adjusted for four year olds that was not sufficiently meeting the needs of the students. With the grant, the Early Childhood Center will develop a program designed specifically for four- and early five-year-old children. Modeled after a High Scope curriculum with proven impact for low-income preschool children, new engaging lesson plans at the Center will teach children through exploration and hands-on experiences. Dedicated resources have made this possible, like literacy readers (books) and tablets with appropriate programs for the students. The Center is also now able to provide pre-K-specific professional development and consultation for teachers, including lesson modeling, team teaching and in-classroom coaching and debriefing.

“We are very thankful for this gift from the Opus Foundation,” said Janine Gorrell, assistant principal at NSCS and head of the pre-K Early Childhood Center. “It’s a sizeable grant, so instead of just purchasing a curriculum, we are developing a specialized program that’s just right for our students.”

The Center has a comprehensive list of both short- and long-term goals for the program and students. Short-term goals include ensuring students can write their first and last names, understand 95% of letters and their sounds and have a familiarity with books that enable reading at level B on the Fountas & Pinnel reading assessment. Longer term, students will gain a foundation of fluent reading and comprehension for educational success and will perform at a proficient or advanced level on the MAP test in grades three through five.

“By capturing their interest and teaching them to learn at an early age, our children have a much better chance to be successful in school and in life,” said Gorrell.

Ryan Bumb, associate project manager for Opus Design Build, L.L.C, in St. Louis, introduced the Foundation to NSCS. “NSCS is providing a high quality, free education option to a severely underserved population, and the Early Childhood Center is a key component of the school's success,” said Ryan, who is a member of the organization’s Young Friends Board that connects young professionals to the school’s mission. “Support of this program hopes to provide a solid foundation for impactful improvement in the community in which we are building.”

Learn more about the Opus Foundation here.