A group of local residents are working to establish a private preschool program for typical learners and those with special physical and developmental needs in an integrated atmosphere.
It all started with a lot of prayer in the fall, a big decision in May and lots of open doors this summer, according to Jennifer Arden, who is behind the effort.
Arden, a special education teacher at Sulphur Springs Independent School District for 13 years, said her faith has been the driving force behind the movement to start a full-day instructional preschool program which includes both children with developmental delays and typically developing children in classes with structured activity-based curriculum, which allows all children to achieve their full potential.
“I felt the Lord was calling me to do something. I wasn’t sure what, but I felt like He wanted me to quit my job. I had taught 13 years in special education. I prayed about it a lot. In February, I told my husband,” Arden explained.
Arden’s husband Gregg, as most would be, was initially resistant to the idea. “With two children at home, 11-year-old Peyton and 4-year-old Preston, who quits their stable job of 13 years without another lined up — especially in this economy?” he wondered.
“We prayed about it. In April, we agreed. I would quit my job,” said Arden, noting that by that point both felt she was indeed being led to do other things. She tendered her resignation from SSISD in May.
Arden thought her next move was to start a day care center. She began to inquire and on May 3 learned she would not be able to offer day care out of her home.
A bit disappointed but not dissuaded, Arden continued to search for her calling, hoping to find what it is God wanted her to do, why He had led her to quit her job.
Since her specialized areas of training and passion are for special education, she inquired about a preschool program for special needs children. She’d taught in a preschool program four years prior to college, so she decided to look into private preschools for special needs students, but soon learned that not only does Sulphur Springs not have one, there are none in Northeast Texas. The closest one is in Dallas.
Continuing to ask questions, she learned about the Rise School of Dallas. Arden began researching Rise Schools and found out it’s part of the cooperative Rise School program started at the University of Alabama in 1974.
With the Dallas school closed for two weeks in early June, Arden got on the horn to Dr. Martha Cook, executive director of the Rise Schools cooperative program at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa. Afterward, Arden said she knew she was on the right track, that “God put it on my heart” to do something like that in her community. She wanted to start the first private integrated preschool program in the area.
“It started on June 4th, when school was out,” Arden said. “Small pieces of the puzzle are coming together. When it’s done, I think it will form a beautiful picture for the people of the community, for the kids of East Texas.”
By June 20, things had really started to take off.
She turned to the Small Business Development Center and soon learned she’d need to get a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service. When looking for someone who might be able to help her, she was referred to Sulphur Springs Community Development Director Shane Shepard.
With Shepard’s help, she has applied for the nonprofit status for a preschool, and is just waiting to hear back from the IRS.
From there, Arden, who will serve as executive director, set about establishing a board of directors for her “Rise” preschool. She began contacting people and got five — Amanda Birchfield Oyler, Dr. Tod Conner, Jennifer Roberts, Leah Conner and Marth Vincent.
“We’re very diverse from a group perspective. We have a doctor and psychologist and educators, all callings with people who called to help those with special needs,” Arden said.
On June 20, both Arden and Oyler visited Rise in Dallas. They loved how the program included integrated occupational, physical and speech therapy for all students.
She hopes to become a part of the Rise School Cooperative, to open a school with a 3-1 student-adult ratio with integrated therapies.
“The big goal is to prepare kids with special needs in a main stream class and for typical learners to include them. When you’re three, everybody’s the same. You start them out that way, get them used to being with persons their age with special needs. When they get in third grade, if they have a student in their class who needs help carrying a tray in the lunch room, they’ll help,” Arden said.
“For so long, special education was separated. We’ve worked hard, our district [SSISD], to include special education students in a lot of general education classes, to make inclusion as well. We have a great school system,” she said.
Even so, Arden said she sees a need for a preschool program to assist students starting at 12 months. The earliest the school’s program takes students is 3 years. Development can be really begin being tracked at 12 months and developmental delays generally become apparent around 18 months. The preschool would target those kids, providing services in an integrated environment with other kids their ages.
Arden and other members of the Rise board set up a table and tent during the farmer’s market on the square to tell others their plans of a Rise school.
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