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Project Beyond program releases findings

NATCHEZ — Starting off on the right foot can be critical to student success even before learning to tie a shoe.

Like any building, student careers need a sound foundation, and a federal grant program called Project Beyond has strived to lay down the ABCs for some local children before moving on to kindergarten.

The program focuses on phonetics, alphabet knowledge, oral language and the concept of print, Project Beyond Site Director Stella Gales said.

“There is a misconception that (three- and four-year olds) are too young to learn. That’s not true,” Gales said.

An offshoot of the Reading First federal program, Project Beyond was established in Natchez in 2007 through a grant partnership between the Natchez-Adams School District and the University of Alabama.

Gales presented the findings of a study of children’s progress at the NASD school board meeting July 1.

They study focused on kindergartners at West Primary.

Compared to a control group kindergartners who were not exposed to the program, Project Beyond graduates scored better at the beginning of the school year in every category except “initial sound fluency.” However, by mid-year testing, Project Beyond children surpassed the control group in the initial sound fluency category.

End-of-the-year testing revealed Project Beyond graduates scored higher than the control group in every category.

Although the program has just completed the official end of its three-year run, Gales said she has filed for a No-Cost Extension, which would allow the program continue this school year using a slimed-down staff.

Gales said Rochelle Dail from The University of Alabama College of Education catered the Project Beyond program to Prince Street Daycare, Holy Family and Thompson Center Head Start based on the qualifications and needs of the students.

Dail was awarded the $3.5 million, three-year grant in partnership with the Natchez schools despite competition with approximately 200 applicants. Only 32 similar grants were awarded nationally.

“Most (of the) children don’t have a good oral language, or vocabulary. That early exposure is a key component to helping children succeed in school,” Gales said.

Project Beyond funded the hiring of a site director, two reading coaches, two interventionists and professional development of 10 teachers.

Gales and the staff have an office at Prince Street Daycare. Gales said the program is grateful to the daycare owner Barbara Crenshaw for her generosity allowing them work out of the space for free.

Gales said the “explicit, intentional professional development” plays a big role in the success of the program.

The grant also funded furniture, supplies and curriculum materials for 10 classrooms.

Gales said the furniture and supplies are designed to separate classrooms into sections for learning. One of the Project Beyond classrooms at Prince Street Daycare had a reading corner with pillows, for instance, and a large carpet with the alphabet in the middle of the classroom, which Gales said was required to be able to fit the entire class.

“We make it learning through play,” Gales said.

Gales said when the program officially concludes, the benefits and training invested in Natchez will not disappear.

“What most people forget about a federal government program — it just isn’t for (the program) to come in and leave. We want teachers to transform and to continue to use the curriculum,” Gales said.

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