ARTICLE BY ALICE DETERS | PHOTOS BY MIRANDA BARRETT AND MELODY SCHMIDT
What began seven years ago as a program to identify Tuscaloosa’s academically at-risk, 4-year-old children and provide them the best health and education services possible has grown into a nationally unique collaboration between The University of Alabama and local schools.
UA students across disciplines provide a growing range of education and health services to young children and their families through the Tuscaloosa Pre-K Initiative. As part of the nine-month, full-day prekindergarten program, UA students help ensure children enter kindergarten healthy and ready to learn.
Students studying education, music, speech pathology, human development, medicine and nursing participate in the program. The program also offers broad health services through partnerships with UA’s medical school, Family Medicine Residency Program, Speech and Hearing Center and Capstone College of Nursing.
“I think it’s really important that we go out and do the health screenings because many of the children in the schools that we serve do not have consistent healthcare,” says Alicia Ayers, a senior majoring in nursing. “Additionally, many of the things we are testing for, like lead levels, don’t cause those who suffer from them to show any symptoms. These screenings could help children get treatment for ailments that their parents or teachers didn’t even know that they had.”
UA students provide health screenings for approximately 300 children each year.
Nursing students enrolled in NUR 422 Community Health Nursing and medical students provide free physical examinations to children in the Tuscaloosa Pre-K program. In Fall 2014, Capstone College of Nursing students served as patient escorts and taught mini-lessons on healthy eating as part of their community health rotation. UA and Shelton State Community College nursing students also took vital signs and screened the children for anemia and levels of cholesterol, lead and glucose in their blood. Medical students assisted with health screenings as part of their pediatrics clinical rotation, and a resident physician from the Tuscaloosa Family Medicine Resident Program attended each screening to oversee the medical and nursing students, check any abnormal health findings and make recommendations for follow-up care.
Following each screening, the Tuscaloosa City Schools district sends letters to pre-K parents with referrals to physicians, dentists and social workers, as needed.
Other health services provided through the UA partnership include hearing screenings and FocusFirst high-tech vision screenings sponsored by the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility. Students have screened more than 1,600 pre-K children for vision problems since the program began. Impairments are typically detected in 11 percent of children, all of whom receive free follow-up care.
Megan Costello, a senior majoring in nursing, says she enjoyed the opportunity to help improve children’s lives. “I think that the most rewarding part is knowing that the screenings we provided really could help prevent these kids from having health issues down the road,” she says. “It was awesome knowing that we were giving their parents, caregivers and healthcare providers the information necessary to ensure that the children’s diet and health behaviors allow them to lead a healthy lifestyle and prevent future problems.”
Paige Johnson, assistant professor of nursing and co-instructor of NUR 422 along with Michele Montgomery, says helping with the screenings can have a far-reaching impact on future healthcare providers. “It is my hope that they will see the health disparities and issues that are prevalent just around the corner from our University,” Johnson says. “I hope that they will understand the importance of primary prevention, health education and health promotion.”
Education and human development majors and other students also gain real-world experiences to use in their future careers. Students assist teachers with daily activities in the pre-K program’s 20 classrooms at nine elementary schools.
Danielle Canton, a senior majoring in political science and communication, helped children with basic math, reading and communication skills. She says she enjoys finding new and creative ways to teach and interact with kids.
“The Tuscaloosa Pre-K Initiative has allowed me to grow in several ways, specifically communication,” Canton says. “This experience has also reemphasized the importance of a quality education. It’s truly a great feeling knowing that I have the capability to help students learn and advance their skills.”
UA School of Music and music-education students regularly visit pre-K classrooms to provide introductory musical instruction, and students with the UA Speech and Hearing Center provide speech therapy to children in the program.
During the 2014-15 academic year, 27 UA students regularly volunteered in Pre-K classrooms as academic assistants. Additionally, several UA service-learning classes, including SPE 100 Exceptional Lives in Society, NEW 237 Cooperation and Conflict and SW 100 Introduction to Social Work, partnered with the Tuscaloosa Pre-K Initiative. UA also dedicated 13 federal work-study awards to students who committed to serving a minimum of 10 hours per week in pre-K classrooms during the 2013-2014 school year, bringing the total number of awards to 49 since 2008.
In addition, UA students volunteer in the United Way’s Summer Jump Start program, a five-week, half-day prelude to kindergarten for children who have little or no preschool experience. Twenty-one student volunteers and six work-study students have accumulated more than 1,225 hours of service during four summers.
For more information about the UA/Tuscaloosa Pre-K Partnership, contact Lindsey Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-348-6491.