When Libby Culver’s phone rings, it’s just as likely to be another school district in Colorado calling for advice as it is someone in Durango School District 9-R’s early education program.
That’s because the Colorado Department of Education likes the way Durango works with its youngest students so much, the district will be included in its Colorado Preschool Program report to the Legislature in January, communications manager Lance Hostetter said.
“The state likes us because we do everything they want us to do,” Culver, supervisor of early childhood programs, said with a laugh. “Preschool and kindergarten have changed over the years, there’s been a lot of push down with more of an emphasis on academic results.”
But the district doesn’t include much direct instructional effort with the young students.
“We always remember children learn best through play,” Culver said. “We still meet academic standards in kindergarten and preschool, but kids are learning on their own, through experiential play. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but they’re learning good foundational skills they will need for later school success.”
One thing that distinguishes District 9-R’s program from many others in the state is that preschool teachers are all early-childhood or elementary-education certified.
“They’re just like a fourth-grade teacher and are on the same pay scale,” Culver said. “The teachers know where all the children are in terms of strengths and weaknesses and know what their interests are. They are observing throughout the day, making notes on pencil and paper or on iPads or iPhones, so the next day, the play is structured around what they have observed.”
Culver remembered one incident when a little boy was “oblivious” to letters, which are taught by having them around the students in many forms.
“He was interested in everything to do with the farm where he was being raised,” she said, “so the teacher created an alphabet using only farm implements and machinery, like tractors. That was what he was interested in, and two months later, he knew all his letters.”
Another example would be Florida Mesa Elementary School’s preschool class’ study of the human body, which has taken place over the last 2½ months.
“They’ve been learning about the circulatory systems, respiratory systems, digestive systems,” Culver said. “The teacher had them lie down on the floor and drew around them, then they used books, toys, through playing pretend, the teacher had skeletons there, had manipulative activities like putting the lungs in a body. They’ve been learning about this, playing with their friends and talking about it.”
For the culminating activity, the students made bones, made intestines, created beautiful – and different – artworks about their bodies and how they work. Their bodies are all dressed up now and hanging on the walls of their classroom, where a peek under the shirts shows anatomy. In a spoiler alert for their parents, they may find those bodies wrapped and under the Christmas tree come Dec. 25.
“They learned science, they learned about themselves, they learned art skills, writing skills, cutting skills and research skills, how to go look something up in a book,” Culver said. “When I was out there, I heard two little girls talking. One said, ‘I’m hungry.’ The other said, ‘No, you just had dinner, look at your stomach.’”
The program also offers Love and Logic classes to parents.
“We want to educate them as to what they can do to support their kids,” she said. “We talk about how to set up a routine, feed their children healthy food, establish a good bedtime, being able to ask open-ended questions rather than telling them to do something. We do this because we need the parents to be strong partners.”
For a parent who was concerned about sending a 4-year-old to an “institutional setting,” a tour resolved the concerns, Culver said.
“It’s a very warm, nurturing environment,” she said. “There are no desks, we’re not teaching them to line up. They’re here to learn to love learning, be independent and feel safe and secure at school.”
Culver also serves as the CDE’s Colorado Preschool Program coordinator in Durango. In Durango schools, the program provides enough funding to pay for aides in several kindergarten classes, keeping the student to teacher ratio at 8 to 1.
“What really makes Durango’s kindergarten successful is the collaboration between Libby Culver and the elementary school principals,” said Mary Jo DePriest, the education department’s regional support specialist for the Colorado Preschool Program. “Mrs. Culver and the principals provide joint oversight of the kindergarten classrooms. There is a true partnership, allowing her early childhood expertise to influence teaching practices in kindergarten.”
Culver’s work doesn’t end at 9-R’s doors. She visits every preschool in the district at least once each school year to see how the district can assist them and what resources she might be able to share.
“They’re all our kids,” she said. “Just being in a preschool is not going to insure a child will be successful. But research shows being in a high quality preschool makes a substantial difference.”