As children enter the preschool program at the Early Learning Center, a twisty green tunnel slide is the first thing they see, followed by the "Westervillage" storefront that includes a pet store, firehouse and police station. Behind a kid-sized yellow door is a poster of a grinning Big Bird with his friends from Sesame Street.

As children enter the preschool program at the Early Learning Center, a twisty green tunnel slide is the first thing they see, followed by the "Westervillage" storefront that includes a pet store, firehouse and police station. Behind a kid-sized yellow door is a poster of a grinning Big Bird with his friends from Sesame Street.

Westervillage usually sparks surprised laughter from children entering the building, but sometimes a few tears fall, says Suzanne Kile, director of preschool services for the Westerville City School District. "One little girl cried in that lobby every day she came to school this year -- refusing to go to class," Kile says. "I met her in the lobby every day, too, and we just sat there together as she cried, and I listened.

"We got in tear-free just yesterday," she says.

Kile, who is in her second year leading the preschool, has had other reasons to celebrate beyond that mid-September triumph. The state of Ohio's Step Up to Quality program recently awarded the preschool five stars -- the highest possible rating.

The Early Learning Center, 936 Eastwind Drive, houses the district's special needs program for children ages 3-5. The students learn side by side with typically developing peers, who act as role models.

Federal law requires all school districts to educate children with disabilities starting at age 3. In Westerville, those students attend preschool for free, while others pay $150 per month. Class sizes are capped at 16, with equal numbers of special needs and peer students.

Nearly 200 children are served by a total staff of about 50, which includes teachers, educational aides, physical and occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, and an adaptive physical education teacher. They consult weekly to discuss best practices for every student.

Preschoolers attend Monday through Thursday for two and a half hours per day. Each of the 11 classrooms has a morning and afternoon session, and children learn gross motor skills on a variety of play equipment in the "moon" and "sun" gymnasiums.

"Fridays are professional days for our staff," Kile says. "It gives us the time to work together. When we have a tough case, we really need to figure out how we can help.

"I think we can close the achievement gap and make the most changes K-12 if we start with these little ones -- getting their bodies and minds ready to learn," she says.

Working Together

On a busy Wednesday in mid-September, Kile encourages kids working out in the moon room as they hop on circles painted on the floor and step through tires and other obstacles. "Can you hop with your feet together?" she asks one girl, who tries the next hop without the step between. "Good!"

The fact that one of their classmates moves through the course with a walker does not faze the other children, who patiently wait for him to catch up.

The room also has specialized equipment such as "the squeeze," a set of padded rollers that students push through. It's human interaction that sometimes helps the most, however.

"I've always believed that when a child misbehaves, we have to figure out what he needs," Kile says. "One boy and I had a plan last school year that I would give him a big hug every day.

"Kids respond to good relationships and predictability," she says. "This year, he is a completely different kid."

As Kile greets students, John O'Connor and a group from the Westerville Kiwanis Club move through the room, making a delivery for the Birthday Book Bonanza program. Kile says such partnerships are key to the preschool.

"We provide a free collection of books to the school, and each teacher selects two to three books to give students during their birthday month," O'Connor says. "We have a standing date to visit the school on the second Tuesday of each month, when someone from Kiwanis or WPE (Westerville Partners for Education) walks around the school with the books that have been identified for kids with birthdays during that month."

As she leaves the moon room, Kile kneels to visit with two boys sitting outside Jessica Marlatt's class. As she leads them inside, other students are settling down for a snack.

Marlatt, who is in her 11th year as a preschool teacher in Westerville, says her class schedule includes book time, painting, crafts and other activities that teach phonemic awareness, phonics and other early learning skills. "We also get plenty of movement breaks, running, jumping, skipping and playing hopscotch in the backyard," she says. "Preschoolers need to learn through play. They also need to feel respected and loved."

She says students tend to accept each other's abilities. "Kids with special needs learn a lot from typically developing peers. They all learn from each other."

'Never a Dull Moment'

Next door in Moriah Stull's classroom, the students welcome a special visitor: Jill Beck, who works upstairs in the district's administrative offices. As students gather on the floor around her chair, she pulls out a book and two puppets. "This is Professor Pinkystein, and he always has a piece of paper in his mouth because he likes fun facts," she says. "Today he has fun facts about bears.

"Poppy is from Jamaica. Who would like to hold her?"

Two children hold and hug the puppets as Beck reads from the book, explaining big words such as "hibernation" and "omnivore."

Stull is in her 12th year of teaching preschool. "There's never a dull moment," she says.

As she leads a small group through worksheets at a kid-sized table, Otterbein student Katherine Walters shows the preschoolers how to trace letters and shapes on a large interactive whiteboard called an Eno Board.

"It's a lot like a Smart Board, so that anything that shows up on the computer can show up on the board," Stull says. "We can also Skype with it."

Walters is studying early educational development. "I really like how interactive everyone is here, and I'm learning a lot about how to run a classroom," she says.

To keep families informed, Stull regularly sends emails and photos and schedules in-person conferences. "We want parents to know we are teaching their children in all areas that will help them flourish and grow," she says. "Kids' brains are like sponges at this age. They learn more than you would expect. The more experiences you can provide, the better, which includes guided playtime."

Parent Erin Kendall says she appreciates the way her child interacts and learns alongside children of different abilities, cultures and family situations. "It is very encouraging to see your child grow to be friends with a classmate that has different physical or developmental abilities, but they don't notice the difference in negative ways -- just that their friend does things differently than they do."

She says teachers "go the extra mile" by getting to know each child as well as his or her family.

Both of Sarah Hayman's children attend the preschool program -- one has special needs and the other is a typically developing student. She says the teachers' work goes beyond core skills. "They are very dedicated to teaching the children not just the basics of learning, ABC's and 123's, they also work on social and behavioral growth and development," she says. "There isn't a sense of special needs children and their peers -- the classrooms are filled with kids playing and learning together."

Parent Phyllis McKinney agrees. "Every day, the teachers meet each child with a big smile and a very caring attitude," she says.

"They not only teach them needed life skills, but do it in such a way that the children really look forward to learning," McKinney says. "The children are disappointed that they can't go to school on their days off."

Kile created a "parent resource" corner at the preschool, which has books about parenting as well as information about typical and special needs behaviors. She even gives out her cellphone number. "I hope if any of our parents needs anything, they will reach out," she says.

Helping Children

Although her office is full of toys and books and she's clearly devoted to her young charges, a career in preschool education wasn't Kile's first choice.

She earned an elementary education degree from Bowling Green State University, then a master's degree in science educational administration. She has worked in the district since 2001 as an intervention specialist; principal of McVay and Whittier elementary schools and Genoa Middle School; district director of community relations services; and coordinator of pupil services.

Before coming to Westerville, she taught science and language arts at Brighton Area Schools in Michigan, then served as an elementary and middle school principal in that district. She and her husband, Stephen, have two children: David, 18, a freshman at the Berkeley College of Music, and Matthew, a junior at Westerville Central High School.

Science is still near and dear to Kile -- especially the study of the brain and how children learn and develop. The books in her office are by leading psychiatrists, educators and scientists, such as The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing, by Dr. Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz.

"When you look at how many families come from other countries or from families that have a lot of problems," Kile says, "you need to find the right tools to help those children.

"More and more, children are coming to us with some tough experiences, even at such young ages," she says. "It can make a huge impact on their development."

Kile says even some of the worst interruptions in development can be healed. "If we have the right kinds of activities and the right kinds of relationships, we can help those children," she says. "Brains are malleable. Research shows us there are more and more things we can do to help correct a problem that impacts a child's development."

Setting the Stage

Westervillage is the first thing Superintendent John Kellogg sees each workday. "It is the entry point for all the kids, and the village component is part of this whole feeling of where you belong," he says.

He says the storefront was the vision of Jeff LeRose, the district's director of business and facilities. "Even the adults are inspired as they come to work each day," Kellogg says. "It is a reminder to everyone who works upstairs just what is most important about our work here."

He praises Kile for her leadership and the volumes of paperwork and site visits she and her staff completed to achieve the Step Up to Quality five-star rating. "Parents rave about the preschool," he says. "Suzanne provides great leadership and all the children end up with a sense of belonging. I think a lot of great components make it a truly unique learning environment."

The district bought the 60,000-square-foot building, which formerly housed McGraw Hill Publishing, for $3.5 million in 2010, with plans to consolidate its administrative offices and preschool classes there. Moving the latter under one roof freed up 11.5 total classrooms at Cherrington, Hanby, Hawthorne, McVay, Pointview, Robert Frost, Whittier and Wilder elementary schools. About $2.7 million in renovations were completed before the preschool opened in 2011.

Kellogg says the district received about $860,000 in state funds for the preschool program last school year. Tuition fees offset other expenses. "Clearly, our program is working well and the skillsets developed in those early years of education make a huge impact on success in later grades," he says.

As a "fan of neuroscience," Kile interjects her background as a science educator to keep improving the program. "I do think we need to keep working on pre-academic skills and study how children's bodies and minds are ready to learn when they get to school-age," she says. "If we study the brain and how it develops and responds to stress, we can create the very best learning environment for kids.

"We need to build a resilience in kids so their brains are ready to absorb everything they can learn," she says.

Kile credits her staff with striving for excellence in the program. "I am working with teachers and professionals who have been taught how to overcome learning obstacles," she says. "They are passionate about education and chose to be in the field so they can make a difference in children's lives."

Pamela Willis is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.

This story appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Westerville365.