WMU News

Pilot program to boost early education skills expands

April 1, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- A model community-based education and training program that helps youngsters get off to a good start in school is expanding with the help of a $34,000 first-year planning grant to Western Michigan University's Department of Occupational Therapy.

The grant, to University researchers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Health Resources and Services Administration, will be followed by second- and third-year grants from the agency of about $110,000 to start similar programs in other schools and possibly other districts.

Called the Occupational Therapy Health/Education Partnership, the project currently is operated in Edison Elementary School in cooperation with the Edison School-based Health Center, Kalamazoo Public Schools and Family Health Center. WMU occupational therapy graduate students, under the supervision of University faculty, work with children from pre-kindergarten through third grade on fine and gross motor skills with hopes of improving academic performance.

Such factors as posture and balance can have a big impact on handwriting and other skills needed in the classroom, says Dr. Richard Cooper, associate professor of occupational therapy and project co-director.

"We work on the skills needed to be able to write rather than just the writing itself," Cooper says. "We're working on skills to get them ready to do something else."

The fieldwork program provides screening and treatment for medically underserved and academically at-risk children who do not qualify for special education. It helps children who
have been identified as having developmental, behavioral or learning disorders.

The project also is good for graduate assistants, who learn professional clinical skills needed in school-based health centers and can use the experience for program research.

The program's success is bolstered because it lasts for a period of years, Cooper says. Children's progress can be built upon and tracked over time.

"It's early intervention that can cover a number of grade levels," Cooper says. "So it's not that we treat a child for one semester and then just leave them out there.

"We see it as WMU and the College of Health and Human Services establishing a long-term relationship with the school district rather than coming in and then just leaving. We're looking at it as a long-term process."

In addition to working with students who regularly attend the school in the fall and winter, the program also serves migrant and Native American children in the summer.
The program has been in place for nearly four years and is part of a nationwide effort to expand health services to young children. In recent years, school-based health centers gained momentum in high schools across the country to spread information about the dangers of AIDS and pregnancy prevention. Officials then saw a need for school-based centers serving younger children and funding has been offered to begin services.

"People realized early intervention was also important," Cooper says.

So far, the program has worked with about 200 children. Positive results have been demonstrated both through testing and by word of mouth.

"It shows in terms of the numbers and how they're testing," Cooper says. "We do assessments and the outcomes have been very strong statistically. But we've also seen success anecdotally with teachers and parents. They have been very supportive of what we're doing."
Because of the project's success, organizers sought federal grants to duplicate the program at other schools. Cooper hopes to extend the effort to three additional schools in the Kalamazoo Public Schools district by fall 1999 and then to other districts in fall 2000.

"A number of local school systems have called to see if we can expand it in their districts," Cooper says. "Others have recognized what we're doing is good, so we feel real positive about that."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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