UA/Tuscaloosa Pre-K Partnership delivers health and education services to children and their families

By:    Date: 09-10-2014

UA students across disciplines provide an ever-expanding array of academic and medical services through a visionary collaboration between The University of Alabama and Tuscaloosa schools.

BY KATIE SANDERS | PHOTOS BY SHANNON AUVIL AND PETE PAJOR

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What began six 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 are delivering an ever-expanding array of academic and medical 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 and nursing have long participated in the program. In the past two years, partnerships with UA’s medical school, family medicine resident program, Speech and Hearing Center and Capstone College of Nursing have broadened the health services offered.

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Medical and nursing students provide free physical examinations to children in the Tuscaloosa Pre-K program. ABOVE: Hearing screenings are provided by students with the UA Speech and Hearing Center.

The University of Alabama School of Medicine Tuscaloosa campus launched a program in which medical students assist with health screenings as part of their pediatrics clinical rotation.

Sarah Gammons, a fourth year medical student, worked with Lindsey Thomas, who coordinates the UA/Pre-K Partnership through the university’s Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, to set up the program and coordinate medical students in conducting physical exams.

At each Fall 2013 screening, Capstone College of Nursing students served as patient escorts and taught mini-lessons on healthy eating as part of their community health rotation. The UA and Shelton State Community College nursing students also took vital signs and assisted with the laboratory portion of the screenings. A resident physician from the Tuscaloosa Family Medicine Resident Program attended each health screening to oversee the medical Medical and nursing students provide free physical examinations to children in the Tuscaloosa Pre-K program.

Gammons said the biggest takeaway from her work with the pre-K program was the realization that community health events are important not only to screen for problems, but also to promote healthier lifestyles. The screeners identified several cases of obesity, anemia, pre-diabetes, pre-hypertension and hypertension among the children. “If we didn’t pick up on these health problems early and address them with their parents, then they could lead to chronic disease later in life,” Gammons said.

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Education and human development majors gain real-world experiences to use in their future careers.

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 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 since the program began. Vision problems are typically detected in 11 percent of children, all of whom receive free follow-up care.

The growing Tuscaloosa Pre-K Initiative encompasses 20 classrooms at nine elementary schools. By assisting pre-K teachers with daily classroom activities, education and human development majors gain real-world experiences and resources to use in their future careers.

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.

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Music and music-education students introduce children to a variety of musical instruments.

During the 2013-14 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.

Danielle Canton, a junior majoring in political science and communication, spends 15 hours in a pre-K classroom each week, helping kids with basic math, reading and communication skills. Canton said she enjoys finding new and creative ways to teach and interact with children. “The Tuscaloosa Pre-K Initiative has allowed me to grow in several ways, specifically communication,” Canton said. “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.”

For more information about the UA/Tuscaloosa Pre-K Partnership, contact Lindsey Thomas at lmthomas@aalan.ua.edu or 205-348-6491.