THE Army’s Child, Youth and School Services’ Strong Beginnings pre-kindergarten program, designed for 4- to 5-year-old children, prepares young students for school with lessons in everything from science and technology to how to hold a carton of milk or carry a food tray.
Besides the basics of “kindergarten protocol,” Strong Beginnings also teaches math, social studies, beginning reading and writing skills and good manners.
Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia (not counting Head Start or Migrant Worker programs) have a state- or district-operated, pre-kindergarten program similar to the Army’s. However, space is sometimes limited, and in six states enrollments are limited to 800 or fewer children.
“In addition, each state has different learning standards, policies and procedures, making it difficult for mobile Families to transition from one state to another,” said Mary Ellen Pratt, Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreations chief of Child Development Programs. “The Army needed to ensure that regardless of the Family’s location, Army children are prepared to enter kindergarten. Our pre-k standards meet or exceed every state’s standards.”
In some locations, the Army has partnered with states to jointly operate the pre-k program.
The Army’s Strong Beginnings program is available at every Army garrison and has standard guidance and procedures, making the program consistent and predictable.
The program, which is three hours long, five days a week, is provided in child development centers’ full-day and part-day programs for children entering kindergarten in the fall. There is no additional fee for children who attend the full-day program, as it is included as part of the monthly tuition, Pratt said.
Strong Beginnings children also receive one instructional class as part of their tuition, such as beginning Spanish or tumbling.
Army early learning standards were developed by Teaching Strategies of Bethesda, Md. “Teaching Strategies is one of the most well-known and respected early childhood development firms in the nation,” Pratt said.
According to Pratt, Teaching Strategies researched and analyzed the standards of every state, D.C. and the Department of Defense Education Activity and garnered the “best of the best” to create the Army-specific Strong Beginnings Early Learning Standards for Children Entering Kindergarten.
The Creative Curriculum for Preschool is the only authorized curriculum for Strong Beginnings and is the most widely used curriculum for pre-kindergarten programs in America.
“This comprehensive curriculum and assessment system is scientifically based, research-tested and provides teachers with strategies for meeting children’s individual needs and learning styles,” Pratt said. “It focuses on literacy, math, science, social studies, the arts, technology and process skills, and includes a parent-participation component.”
Parents play a major role in Strong Beginnings, particularly during town hall meetings where they discuss expectations and learn about the Army’s ability to prepare their children for school.
There are also parent-teacher conferences during the fall, mid-year and prior to graduation, where parents receive updates on their children’s progress. Parents are also provided opportunities to actively support the program through volunteering in the classroom and on field trips, for example.
There’s also a summer pre-k bootcamp. This one-week, intensive orientation to kindergarten is aimed at children who never attended Strong Beginnings or moved to the garrison over the summer. This provides children an opportunity to learn about their new community, as well as obtain a better understanding of what kindergarten will be like.
Finally, there’s a graduation ceremony to mark the transition from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten. Although not a college graduation extravaganza, it does include caps, gowns and diplomas.
“Most children and virtually all parents get really excited over this big day,” Pratt said. “Not having a graduation would be a letdown for all the children who worked so hard throughout the year. It is recognition that these children are well-prepared for their future. This day marks the beginning of the rest of their lives.”