Education with hugs

Ryan Ulbricht dressed for the western "hoe-down" theme of the event. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

OCEAN PARK - Saturday turned into a real hat-wavin', boot-stompin', Yee-ha-in' good time at Ocean Park School as the ECEAP pre-school program celebrated graduation day for several area 4-year-olds by throwing a "hoe-down."

ECEAP, a state-funded program affiliated with the Educational Service District 112, has been offering its pre-school program to low-income families on the Peninsula for more than 10 years, but this was the first time its graduation event has had a theme.

"This event has just become bigger and bigger and bigger every year," said Lorraine Kane, coordinator for south Pacific County ECAEP.

Kane said the program is very family oriented and that is why the culminating graduation has become almost more of a family outing than a ceremony.

Almost all who attended the event Saturday dressed the part, wearing plaid shirts, cowboy-style hats and bandannas around their necks. They were also treated to a potluck lunch - which provided so much food that the ceremony started late because people had so many good things from which to choose.

But the wait gave way to opportunity, as many took the time to play on the playground or have their photographs taken in front of a barnyard backdrop.

As the ceremony got under way, Kane introduced her staff, which works with the students at both the Ocean Park and Long Beach Elementary School sites. And before "diplomas" were handed out, Kane asked if anyone from the audience would like to step up and say anything.

This spurred one small graduate to step forward to one of the staff members and say very softly, "Thank you." This opened the floodgates, as many of the grads then walked up to give hugs to their teachers and gave their thanks as well.

The ECEAP program receives children when they are four years of age, a year before starting kindergarten. The program has several goals, not least of which is to reduce anxiety children may have about school and to prepare them for that next step. Every student in the program also receives a dental examination, a physical and a developmental assessment for academics.

To be eligible for the program, parents have to be at 110 percent of the federal poverty level or below - families who otherwise would not be able to afford pre-school care. Kane said the goal is to "serve low-income families and to stimulate and enrich their environment so that when they get to kindergarten they will have the same opportunities as other kids." Kane said it really works at leveling the playing field for those kids.

One particular group that has reaped the benefits of the program is the local Hispanic community. Kane said a real plus this year was for the first time having a bilingual staff person. She said it had always been hard for non-English speaking families to get all they needed from ECEAP.

"They were missing a lot before," said Kane.

And it is families who really make the program work so well, she said. Many of the parents volunteer in the classes and on field trips. Judging by participation Saturday - many parents were as dressed up as their children - families as a whole benefit from the program.

"Time you spend with your children is important" stressed Kane. "Our program is what you make it. So is family. So is life."

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