When Jenny Wiens enters the classroom, she places a box in the center of the rug. The young children run to peek inside. They pull out wooden puzzles, musical instruments and books. Parents sit in a circle and begin engaging with their child, pointing to objects and discussing colors, sounds, shapes and sizes. It’s a typical start to a reading session associated with Milestones Ahead.
Founded by Wiens, the Milestones Ahead program is designed to empower and educate parents of children ages 0-5. The ultimate goal is to increase child development milestones and school readiness skills. Over the past ten years while teaching first grade in McPherson, Wiens noticed a gap in reading abilities in many children who came from under resourced families. Thus, when she enrolled in the master of education program at McPherson College her final project focused on this concern.
“The issues that resonated within me all had a common theme,” said Wiens. “Many students were coming to school without the early literacy skills necessary to help them be successful in school. My research demonstrated a large population of these students were from families of low socioeconomic status.”
While working with a literacy specialist, Wiens learned language development was a key to school and life success. She utilized a community focus group composed of representatives from United Way of McPherson County, the McPherson Public library, a preschool music program, Circles of McPherson County and the McPherson County Community Foundation to confirm the need for creating a family centered language program for families living in poverty. “The focus group helped me determine Circles of McPherson County was the best place for families to come together in a safe, comfortable setting to read, sing, play and explore together,” said Wiens.
Wiens meets weekly with eight children from five families involved with Circles to explore new books and toys that help expand language and creativity. Parents receive training on language development and learn how to help increase literacy skills with their children. “The children have a chance to be in a structured yet fun setting with the support of their parents before going off to school,” Wiens said. “Being exposed to a structured learning environment prior to entering preschool or Kindergarten is advantageous to the ongoing success of a student.”
Milestones Ahead was established with $5,000 seed money from United Way of McPherson County. “United Way believes education is the cornerstone of individual and community success,” said United Way director Anne Kirchner. “Jenny’s research proved children need multiple, interactive and developmentally appropriate experiences to improve their literacy skills. Investing in Milestones Ahead was a perfect match.”
This week Wiens celebrates the completion of the first semester of Milestones Ahead. Future goals include growing the number of Circles families participating in the program. Wiens also hopes to offer the program to the public to provide language development support to more families throughout McPherson County.