EL PASO – After her daughter was born five years ago with Down syndrome, local educator Kerry McKee began an extensive search for special education opportunities for children with the genetic condition.
She searched with no luck for schools in the El Paso area that catered to children like her daughter and discovered that Down syndrome children often were placed in separate classrooms.
She even considered moving to another city in Texas with special facilities and learning opportunities for children with special needs.
“I said, that’s not the education my child is going to have,” said Mckee, who has worked for 20 years in the field of education.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, approximately one in every 700 babies in the U.S. is born with Down syndrome – or about 6,000 each year.
Finally, after visiting the KinderFrogs School in Fort Worth, an inclusive program designed for children with disabilities, she decided El Paso needed a program like it.
With financial support from the Down Syndrome Coalition for El Paso and the El Paso Community Foundation, a year ago her dream came true when she opened the Every Little Blessing Preschool program located in the Mesa Plaza Shopping Center on North Mesa near Hobby Lobby. The program now enrolls 15 children between 18 months and five years of age.
“It was a coming together of everybody at just the right time,” said Mckee of her efforts to seek local support for the special school.
The program’s target population is children with Down syndrome, but also Every Little Blessing also accepts children who have similar developmental differences, as well as typically developing children.
The program currently has two classes separated by development needs that incorporate play-based learning, the “Littles,” and the “Bigs.” The “Littles” class, which enrolls seven children, focuses on developing self-help skills, sensory exploration, and gross motor skills. While the “Bigs” class, with eight children, works on applying those self-help skills independently to prepare them for the transition into kindergarten.
Teaching Assistant Monica Lobera said she fell in love with her job and finds it fulfilling. “It takes them longer to get it most of the time, but when they do it’s the most rewarding,” said Lobera.
“We are constantly seeking to improve and we’re hoping to become the Down syndrome experts in El Paso,” she added.
The program keeps a ratio of no more than three students per adult. Mckee says this plays a big part in why teachers are able to meet each child’s individual needs, no matter what their special needs are.
“Bigs” teacher Jade Beltran has been a special education teacher for over 10 years. She says working with students one-on-one and in smaller groups is more effective than having a very large class. In addition to satisfying the children’s educational needs, teachers work on developing the social and emotional needs of each child by working together with the whole family.
“I definitely believe that we are working to not only educate the children and help them develop in a positive aspect, but we are also assisting the parents and the grandparents as well,” Beltran said.
She adds, “I think there needs to be a whole family, a village type, to raise a child, so I think we’ve been a good tool and a good resource.”
Mckee’s goal for Every Little Blessing is to to eventually create child education opportunities for a variety of special needs. In the future she hopes to expand the preschool and move to a more central location in the city, where they can meet the needs of more children.
“My focus on Down syndrome was because that’s what I learned when my child was born, but I’ve also learned that all children need an amazing educational foundation,” said Mckee, adding that “there’s a lot of joy in raising a child with special needs.
She believes the school has raised awareness in the community about individuals with special needs. While children and adults with Down syndrome experience developmental delays, they have many talents and gifts and should be given the opportunity and encouragement to develop them.
“Education is really the best way to create change,” she said.
For information on Every Little Blessing Preschool: https://everylittleblessing.org/