Start Early. Start well.

December 09, 2022

Ralston's Youngest Learners Can Play, Get Exposure to School at Meet-ups

Teacher Eunises Casillas and two boysEunises Casillas, a home visitor at Ralston's Mockingbird Elementary School, with  3-year-olds Theodore, left, and Yamen. Mockingbird offers weekly drop-in play sessions and a monthly socialization group for young children and their families.
By Erin Duffy 

Two-year-old Theodore Ruckman spends a lot of time with adults.  

He’s an only child and lives with his grandparents. Like many toddlers, learning to share his toys is a work in progress. His communication style skews a little more toward noises than fully formed words.  

“At home he just has us,” said grandmother Kate Ruckman. “He really doesn’t have other kids to play with, so he tends to play a little rougher.” 

But for the past six months or so, Theodore and his grandmother have been getting some much-needed socialization time with a group of fellow toddlers and their families organized by Mockingbird Elementary in Ralston Public Schools.  

“He’s talking more,” Ruckman said. “This helps him with his language.”  

As part of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan’s School as Hub approach, families at Mockingbird can attend weekly drop-in play sessions, which allow them to connect with other local parents, or they can join the more structured, monthly socialization group that incorporates an early childhood curriculum. 

Led by home visitor Eunises Casillas, the monthly group emphasizes literacy, language, and plenty of free play. On a Wednesday in late August, she guided five very energetic 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old boys through art projects, songs, a game of mini-bowling, and a reading of Eric Carle’s classic picture book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” that emphasized the words for different colors and animals.  

“The midst of the pandemic was really hard for our kiddos, and socialization kind of went out the door for everyone, right?” Casillas said. She and Mockingbird staff talked about how they could provide “a safe environment for our kids to socialize, for our parents to get together.”  

At Mockingbird, about half of the students are Latino. In the 2020–21 school year, three-quarters of students qualified for free or reduced lunch and 25% were English Language Learners.  

Boy and manTheodore with Malachi Behrens, an administrator at Mockingbird.
Melissa Stolley, Ralston’s director of student services, praised Casillas and said Ralston is looking to expand the socialization and drop-in groups to another elementary school. The pandemic made it harder for families to meet up at the library storytime or join local playgroups.  

“It’s really helped grow parent involvement at the building and get kids excited for school,” allowing Ralston to connect with families years before their children enter preschool or Kindergarten, Stolley said. 

Mockingbird is a School as Hub school within the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan, an effort by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties to help close the opportunity gap for young children in 11 Omaha-area school districts. The Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska provides support and services for the plan. 

The School as Hub concept imagines schools as a connection point where families and children from birth to third grade can access early childhood education and services. There are eight School as Hub elementary schools in the Omaha, Bellevue, Westside, Millard, Ralston, and Douglas County West districts, and all offer programming and engagement for families of infants and toddlers.  

Home visitors like Casillas might drop in on families with new babies to show parents the importance of reading and talking to their infants. Educators and families can work together to monitor child development milestones and respond to typical toddler behavioral challenges. As they grow, kids can opt to attend a preschool program at the school and then transition to Kindergarten, creating a through-line of consistent, quality education.  

“Research shows that the more engaged families are, the better the outcomes for students,” said Molly Colling, a Buffett Institute program specialist who works with home visitors. “That’s not just our school-agers, but also infants, toddlers, preschoolers.”  

Families in the socialization groups swap stories, parenting tips, even clothes and toys.  

“The children have a network of peers and families have a network, too,” Colling said. “They feel comfortable and that they belong at this school.”  

Three-year-old Yamen Abdelgader was not immediately sold on the group. He entered the classroom at Mockingbird wailing and clinging to his mom, Safaa.  

But within minutes, Casillas had introduced him to Theodore and an activity table where the two boys began filling buckets with different shapes—turtles, corkscrews, and stars. She rolled a spiky ball against Yamen’s small hand as he giggled. “It tickles!” she said. “Is it smooth or spiky?”  

Safaa Abdelgader said the socialization group is good for Yamen’s language development and English skills since the family primarily speaks Arabic at home. 

Santiago Jimenez, 3, still a little shy and holding his mom Belén Gutiérrez’s hand, made a beeline for a tub full of toy cars and trucks. Casillas, who is bilingual, welcomed him in Spanish.  

Casillas said it’s important to understand where these children are developmentally. Most 2-year-olds can’t sit quietly for long and are still learning to share and play with others. She practices transitions with them, moving from one activity to the next. 

“Transitioning is really hard for our kiddos right now, leaving a toy that you like and being able to move on,” she said.  

Mother and sonBelen Gutierrez with her 3-year-old son, Santiago.
They sang “Five Little Monkeys” together as Casillas counted on her fingers. She pulled out a calendar and they talked about the weather outside and took turns launching a blow-up bowling ball at a set of pins.  

“You’re doing hard stuff—you’re sharing,” Casillas told the group.  

Santiago’s older sister Valentina is now in PreK. The family started participating in the home visiting program when Gutiérrez was pregnant with her.  

“I learned a lot about talking to my baby, singing to my baby,” Gutiérrez said in Spanish. She realized how much Valentina was soaking in when she began imitating her mother and sticking her tongue out when she was only a few months old.  

Gutiérrez ticked off a long list of what she’s learned from Casillas. Instead of just telling her children “no, no, no,” she uses a variety of words to correct and guide them. She understands the difference between fine and gross motor skills. And the family has slowed down to enjoy simple activities like mealtime.   

Casillas said she’s worked hard to convince families of the importance of the early years. Sometimes they think their children are too young to start going to school or practicing new skills.  

“We let them know this is prime age for brain development, 0 to 5,” she said. “They’re literally a sponge. It’s giving them a glimpse, planting a seed: this is what preschool is like.” 


Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.  
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