Rutland County Head Start students danced away the morning Thursday.
Students were treated to an outdoor concert from local kid-friendly band Moose Junior.
Children, families and RCHS staff gathered on the lawn overlooking Abatiell Field on Meadow Street as band members played a traditional West African greeting song while they danced to the stage, banging drums and blowing on a saxophone.
The pre-school-aged students danced along to the music, waving homemade shakers as the band played several singalong songs before treating adults in the audience to a jazzy version of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” and closing with a pair of familiar Beatles tunes.
Comprised of members of Moose Crossing, a popular area band that blends jazz, funk rock and blues, Moose Junior is the band’s kid-friendly side project.
Matthew Perry, Vermont Arts Exchange executive director, said he approached the band with the idea after observing band member Zak Hampton’s onstage persona, which Perry thought would appeal to children.
Perry said the group is now performing free shows around southern Vermont thanks to support from the Vermont Community Foundation.
Thursday’s concert was part of a summer partnership between RCHS and the VAE.
Since 2014, VAE has brought arts programming into Head Start classrooms in Rutland and Bennington Counties with support from the Vermont Arts Council.
“What we always try to do is give them high-quality arts experiences, but also try to teach Head Start teachers how to incorporate the arts across all of the curriculum,” said Heather Bullock, VAE program and grant coordinator.
Bullock noted research has shown the arts help prepare young children for a successful primary school education. An analysis conducted by the Arts Education Partnership in 2002 showed that studying the arts had a positive effect on students’ reading, writing and math skills, as well as social-emotional development.
Bullock said this summer, the Arts Council provided grants to Head Start programs to bolster summer programming, allowing VAE to hire local artist and musician Linda MacFarlane.
Using the ocean as a theme, MacFarlane led students in art projects, musical activities and reading lessons while raising awareness of climate change and other ocean-related environmental issues.
One book they read together was “Octopus’s Garden” by Ringo Starr and Ben Cort.
MacFarlane said she built a lesson plan around the book and familiarized kids with the song, which they got to hear Moose Junior perform Thursday.
The culminating art project was a “treasure chest” shaker students made by putting various noisy items inside a plastic bottle they then decorated.
MacFarlane said the project incorporated early learning skills, like measuring and counting.
She said they also spent time identifying sea shells, making shadow boards for them and singing shell-related songs.
MacFarlane said the shells were a big hit.
“It just ties everything in. They get engaged in a whole different way when they’re using manipulatives and creating something,” she said.
As part of her work, MacFarlane said she provides teachers with an outline and extension activities that align with Vermont early learning standards.
Typically, RCHS only offers child care during summer months, but Assistant Director Kelley Todriff said RCHS was able to offer its regular pre-school program five days a week from June 1 to Aug. 18 because of federal COVID-relief funding.
Currently, 68 children are enrolled — plus an additional 10, who are receiving home-based services in Pawlet.
Todriff said that while teachers are working to catch students up on math, science and literacy deficiencies created by the pandemic, addressing students’ social-emotional needs has been a major focus this summer.
She said the goal is to get kids ready for kindergarten by helping them regulate their emotions and attend to classroom activities.
“It’s different when you’re at home with your parents and playing with friends. But when you come together in a group, you have different temperaments and expectations,” she said. “So we really have focused on our three programmatic expectations for all children, staff and family: be safe, be kind and be gentle.”
Todriff reported that all RCHS sites are scheduled to reopen on Sept. 1, including its Hickory Street “discovery center” and both classrooms at Northeast and Northwest Primary Schools.
“We’re moving full-forward ahead with opening up,” she said.
In a follow-up email, Todriff acknowledged that “COVID still is very much a part of our current and future planning.”
She stated RCHS will maintain a more stringent “child illness policy” moving forward, noting a decrease in easily spreadable common childhood illnesses in classrooms last year.
RCHS is also reviewing several other practices such as family-style meals and teeth brushing in the classroom, both of which were suspended last year.
However, Todriff noted that the question of whether staff and children will be required to wear masks in light of new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, remains unanswered.
“Since we are a qualified pre-K provider, we fall under the (Vermont Agency of Education) guidance, which we’re hearing could be released in the next two weeks,” she said.