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W.Va. Universal Pre-K students show preliminary advantages

HUNTINGTON — Children enrolled in West Virginia’s Universal Pre-K program generally enter kindergarten with an advanced set of initial skills compared with kids who didn’t participate, according to preliminary data from a study launched five years ago.

That, of course, was the intent of the Pre-K program, which began in West Virginia in 2002.

However, the early findings also suggest that the advantages Pre-K students have when entering kindergarten fade by the time they are in third grade — a development that researchers in the state plan to delve into further with an extension of the Pre-K study.

The study that began in 2015 involved the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Jersey, the West Virginia Department of Education and Marshall University’s College of Education and Professional Development, with data collectors supervised through Marshall working in seven counties. Those counties were Putnam, Kanawha, Wood, Fayette, Roane, Greenbrier and Nicholas. Now, researchers will continue their work after a $2.5 million extension was approved recently.

“West Virginia is really ahead in our Pre-K programs,” Mindy Allenger, associate professor at Marshall’s College of Education and Professional Development, said. “The earlier we can intervene with children, the better. In those early days, their brains are developing like crazy, and if we can get that quality start to kids, it’s going to improve our long-term school scores, increase their employment options, earning potential — it’s really setting them up for success.”

That’s how April Melvin, Pre-K teacher at the Child Development Academy at Marshall, which practices a play-based curriculum, sees her role. Her job as a preschool teacher helps set the tone for the child’s future educational experience, she said.

“We are the stepping stone of the child’s school career and we want it to be a positive experience,” Melvin said. “When we help foster a love of learning, especially through play, it will help influence the way that a child feels about school for the rest of their life.”

Melvin said children at the academy gain social-emotional skills, cognitive skills, fine and gross motor skills, adaptive skills and academic skills through hands-on learning.

“We want our children to be independent, be able to express themselves and have a curiosity of the world,” Melvin said. “When we focus on who they are and what they need, meeting their needs in that moment, all of the other things will develop naturally.”

Initial data from the study suggests that kids who attend a Universal Pre-K program will have advantages over their peers in kindergarten who did not attend; however, those advantages often reach a plateau by the time the child enters third grade.

“We’re looking to see if they’ve retained those early gains, because there is a lot of data that says students do have gains after going to a quality preschool,” Allenger said.

Nearly 76% of children who attend kindergarten in West Virginia have attended the Universal Pre-K program, according to Monica DellaMea, executive director of the Office of Early and Elementary Learning at the WVDE.

Because the program is so heavily used, the study plays an important role in making sure participating children receive a thorough education and teachers are provided with fact-based assistance.

“Since the beginning of the study, the researchers have followed a cohort of children. We are now in our fifth year of looking at this study, so we’re getting ready to wrap up our last year of data collection,” DellaMea said. “There seem to be advantages for those children in Pre-K, but those advantages tend to fade, which is a national trend we’ve seen, by first or second grade, so we know that that’s something that speaks to the fact that our instructional practices in kindergarten, first and second grade are areas in which we could definitely see improvement.”

The study also uses a classroom assessment system to look at three major components of program quality: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support.

According to assessments thus far, West Virginia has fared well in indoor space environment, helping children expand their vocabulary, encouraging children to use language, staff and child interactions, peer interactions and limited transitions and waiting times.

“West Virginia is on par nationally with emotional support,” DellaMea said. “It’s very clear from our study that the teachers genuinely adore the children they serve and want to make sure their needs are met.”

DellaMea said the state fares similarly in classroom organization, but shows room for improvement in instructional support, which has been historically lower than the other two sectors across the U.S.

“It’s an area in which we know we definitely have room to grow in West Virginia, and that is something that we’re really focusing on as an office and helping to build resources and support to make sure educators have what they need to be successful,” she said.

Because of West Virginia’s dedication to Pre-K development, the National Institute for Early Elementary Research also has selected the state to participate in a second study to identify and share positive early learning practices with other areas of the country that may be struggling.

“What they plan to do is put together a case study on each state that was selected, and the other states are Michigan, Alabama and New Jersey,” DellaMea said. “We don’t have all the answers, and we know that we always have room to grow, but this helps us strive to make sure we’re providing what the state needs as far as resources and support.”

West Virginia passed legislation in 2002 requiring the state to expand access to preschool education programs in order to make prekindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in the state by the 2012-13 school year. West Virginia’s preschool program is available in all 55 counties. West Virginia requires that a minimum of half of the programs operate in collaborative settings with private prekindergarten, child care centers or Head Start programs in order to facilitate expansion of the program.

Father-daughter dance continues Valentine's tradition

HUNTINGTON — Fathers and their daughters got a chance to dance the night away Saturday in an annual tradition hosted by the Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District.

The annual Father-Daughter Valentine’s Dance was hosted at the DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Ballroom in Huntington.

Featuring a live DJ, chocolate fountains and a rose for each girl, dads and daughters of all ages spent a special evening together. On a night to remember, fathers and daughters also received complimentary commemorative photos and crafted Valentine’s Day mementos to take home.

Two local dogs drafted to compete in 2020 Dog Bowl

HUNTINGTON — Just a few hours before the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs take the field this weekend, people all over the country will tune into a different kind of Super Bowl Sunday tradition: Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl and Dog Bowl.

The annual events pit two teams of dogs against each other in a model stadium with toys, obstacles, riveting commentary and instant replays. The goal of the event is to highlight rescue dogs featured in the game in hopes of getting them adopted into their forever homes.

Returning this year is a spinoff of the annual “Puppy Bowl” — the third annual “Dog Bowl,” which promotes the adoption of older dogs. Spectators to this year’s event may recognize two familiar faces, Snow and Spunky, who were rescued by One By One Animal Advocates of Huntington.

Snow is an 8-year-old Yorkie/Pomeranian mix and Spunky is a 9-year-old Yorkie mix. Before making their professional debut, the two dogs were fostered by Ashley Morrison, the group’s foster coordinator in Huntington. They were rescued from an owner who could no longer care for them in Louisa, Kentucky.

From Morrison’s home, the dogs were taken to Danbury Animal Welfare Society in Bethel, Connecticut, where they were eventually adopted into forever homes. The Danbury Animal Welfare Society is one of many rescue groups that partners with One By One Animal Advocates to send dogs and cats from this area to other parts of the country where they may have a greater chance of being adopted.

A couple of months ago, Morrison said her contacts at the Connecticut shelter notified her that Animal Planet had asked them to “draft” some puppies and dogs into the Puppy Bowl and Dog Bowl. Snow and Spunky were then taken to Madison Square Garden in New York and were selected to participate in the show’s taping, she said.

“I’ve had so many fosters over the years, and some have gone on to things like living with celebrities and things like that,” Morrison said. “But this has definitely been something that has been pretty shocking.”

Despite being older dogs, Morrison said Snow and Spunky were energetic and she is not surprised they were selected for their small-screen debut.

Heather Aulick, president of One By One Animal Advocates, said her organization is thrilled to partner with rescues that see the value in older dogs.

“We are very happy that, first they went to rescues and they are getting this national publicity, but more importantly that they have been adopted into very loving homes,” Aulick said. “It’s nice that people can look beyond their age and see that they still have a lot to give.”

Aulick said she and fellow members of One By One Animal Advocates will be watching the Dog Bowl to root for the two local stars, who will be on team Goldies and Oldies.

Puppy Bowl XVI airs at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, on Animal Planet. Dog Bowl III premiered on Super Bowl eve, but will be replayed at 1 p.m. Sunday before the Puppy Bowl festivities.

FAA grounds plans to eliminate overnight hours at Huntington Tri-State Airport

HUNTINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration will not go through with a plan to eliminate overnight operations at the Huntington Tri-State Airport after urging from congressional leaders.

In November, the Huntington airport was notified by the FAA that its air traffic control tower was one of 15 in the agency’s Central Service Area identified as a potential candidate for reductions in operating hours. The reduction would have been a cost-saving measure based on an Office of Inspector General audit report, which analyzed flight operations numbers and other trends.

However, those plans were scrapped after the urging of Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. Carol Miller, Brent Brown, executive director of the airport, said Friday.

“The Huntington Tri-State Airport is extremely appreciative of the support and efforts of Senators Manchin and Capito as well as Congresswoman Miller,” Brown said. “Together they were able to get the FAA to remove HTS from the list of airports being considered for this reduction. We thank the FAA as well for understanding the importance of maintaining a 24-hour control tower at HTS. They have also recognized the negative impacts to both the airport and the community that would have occurred under a reduction of hours of the control tower.”

After receiving the memo in November, Brown wrote a letter to the FAA asking to be excluded from plans for reduced hours because of its potential to hurt the airport financially and to pose a safety risk. The Cabell County Commission wrote a similar letter that was sent late last month.

“The current services provided, and any future growth at the airport, relies heavily on the ability to provide continuous coverage from the air traffic control tower to meet the demands of local and itinerant users,” Brown said. “As the airport is situated on top of mountainous terrain, the 24-hour coverage from the tower ensures the necessary level of safety that the air carriers, charter flights, medical flights and the general public have come to rely on and expect.”

Also among the airports originally slated for elimination of overnight hours was Yeager Airport in Charleston. However, the FAA similarly backed off plans to reduce hours there after Kanawha County officials and several congressional leaders expressed safety concerns for the West Virginia Air National Guard and other military aircraft taking off and landing there at night.

Manchin and Capito released statements Friday applauding the FAA for continuing 24-hour operations at the Huntington airport.

“Since becoming aware of FAA’s proposal to possibly limit the operating hours at HTS, my office has worked diligently to express concern and stay on top of this issue,” Capito said. “The mountainous terrain at the airport makes the 24-hour coverage critical to the level of safety when managing their operations. I am glad the FAA decided to maintain the 24-hour operations, which will ultimately have a positive impact on the community and allow the airport to continue to grow.”

Manchin said he was thankful the FAA reconsidered its proposal, and acknowledged there is more work to be done to preserve 24-hour operations at the airport.

“Reducing the hours of Huntington’s air traffic control tower could have threatened current commercial and cargo operations and decreased safety at the airport, and for the past several weeks, I have been working with local officials, FAA representatives and other members of the West Virginia delegation to protect Huntington’s air traffic controller tower,” Manchin said. “Today, I am pleased the FAA has made the decision to remove Huntington Tri-State Airport from consideration in reducing its operation hours, securing 24-hour operations at the airport. This decision is great news for Huntington and the state.”

The airport currently hosts two major airlines offering nonstop flights to Charlotte, North Carolina; Orlando, Florida; St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Florida; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. More than 101,000 people boarded planes at the airport in 2018, according to FAA data.