By Emily Reed

Photos By Lauren Ustad

When Whitney Wells enrolled her three-year-old son at Vestavia East Elementary preschool, he was welcomed into a stimulating, enriching and engaging environment that allowed him to thrive.

“After eighteen months of speech therapy, our three year old son was barely speaking,” Wells says. “At Vestavia East Elementary preschool, he was welcomed with loving teachers and educators.

He has thrived and developed on a level I could never have imagined. Today at age five, he has surpassed all goals with speech, reads sight words, solves problems and engages socially with his peers. He is very ready for kindergarten.”

The preschool program with Vestavia Hills schools is designed to be an inclusive preschool program for 3, 4 and 5 year olds with special needs and 3 to 5-year-old typically developing peers. All students are taught by highly qualified, certified teachers that follow state standards in order to prepare students for their kindergarten year.

The goal of the program is to enhance instruction for students with special needs, which includes age appropriate models in the classroom while preparing all students for kindergarten, according to information provided on the school’s website.

The program initially began in 2009, and the locations of the program include Vestavia Hills Elementary East with one class; Vestavia Hills Elementary Liberty Park with one class; Vestavia Hills Elementary Cahaba Heights with three classes.

Mary Laslie Balogh, who is the program specialist and coordinator for the preschool program, says the goal is to have 10 to 14 students per class with a split ratio of students with special needs and typically developing peers.

“Each class has a lead teacher and 2 paraprofessional assistants,” Balogh says. “The preschool program is 5 days per week from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., and parents may choose the number of days a child attends.”

The Vestavia Hills Preschool is based on the philosophy of developmentally appropriate practice, which means that the emphasis is on learning through a language rich, play-based, child-initiated approach.

Instruction for each child is age appropriate as well as individualized for the child’s developmental level. The curriculum is organized to facilitate children’s development in six major areas including cognition, communication, self-help, motor skills, social-emotional and play skills.

Each class is staffed by certified teachers, trained paraprofessionals, a speech-language pathologist, an occupational therapist and physical therapist (if needed). Emily Colon sent both her son and her daughter to the preschool, describing the impact on her two children as “enormous.”

“I am constantly amazed at the high standard of teaching and learning, the variety of lessons, but also the consistency of their routines, and the warmth and love the teachers foster in the classroom every single day,” Colon says. “The preschool teachers have truly changed our kids’ lives and prepared them so well for kindergarten. We are grateful beyond words for this program.”

Parent Maggie Klyce says the program takes a “whole child” approach to teaching, including general education along with social and emotional development. All of the school teachers are certified and highly qualified, and current teachers at the school all hold a Masters degree.

Balogh, along with preschool teachers and case managers Alisha Collins and Laura Ann Dewaard, says having the preschool programs in the elementary schools helps lend to a smooth transition to kindergarten and helps foster a sense of community and relationship being built in the school environment.

Relating to special needs, the program provides an individualized program based on needs specific to each child. If needed, students are provided with related services of a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, behavior specialist and nurse.

Parent Mandy Bailey says her daughter blossomed at the program both academically and in her self-confidence. “She adores her teachers and classmates and can’t wait to tell us everything she has learned after school,” Bailey says. “It is evident every day that the children feel at home and loved as they enter the school.”

A typical day for the preschool children consists of a fun learning environment with hands on learning and engagement and music and movement. Students also enjoy circle time, whole group learning, small group instruction and individualized one-to-one instruction. There is also a snack time, and students eat lunch at school.

Balogh hopes the program will continue to be an established program in the Vestavia Hills community and continues to raise awareness to parents of what is offered for children ages 3 to 5. Information about the program can be found on under the “Teaching and Learning” tab.