At the turn of the millennium, leaders at Carlisle County Schools worked to address specific issues impacting their district: low attendance numbers and dropout statistics among at-risk students. The Carlisle Preschool Assistants to Learning (PALs) program was born from this work.
“When we started the program, it was started as a dropout prevention,” said Preschool Coordinator and PALs Advisor Lisa Roberts. “We targeted students at the high school that were missing a lot of school … and what we considered to be at-risk students.”
The program worked.
“The first couple of years after we started this program, we tracked students’ attendance. Students at risk of truancy – their attendance greatly improved,” she said. “We do a pre-survey and a post-survey about coming to school. We found that more students involved in the past wanted to come to school because they knew they were making a difference and they knew they’d be missed.
“It showed more satisfaction among high school students and that’s what led to more students wanting to be a PAL — the satisfaction among kids that maybe weren’t targeted.”
In 2008, the program won the Kentucky School Board Association’s Public Education Achieves in Kentucky (PEAK) award. Because of its success, the program is now open to more students.
“Students — any junior or senior — can choose this class as an elective. The majority of the grade is based on attendance, and it’s based on taking initiative — it’s based on building relationships with students,” said Roberts.
Carlisle PALS joins districts across the Commonwealth that are focusing on grow-your-own programs designed to recruit new professionals to education to address teacher shortages and expand teacher workforce diversity in the state.
At the beginning of each year, Roberts ensures PALs participants understand confidentiality rules, their behavior expectations and standards, and the responsibility they carry in providing stability for the preschool students they interact with.
The result is an interest in pursuing careers in education.
Roberts said one preschool assistant — a veteran of five years — was a PAL during high school. Another of the first PALs has been a teacher with the district for nearly 20 years.
“We’re using our own people as resources. It’s a win-win. It’s a win for the preschool. It’s a win for the high school. It’s building character in our high school students,” she explained.
Roberts said the PALs program has created a culture of belonging.
“Students that feel like they don’t belong in clubs, or they don’t belong in a clique — they belong with us,” she said. “They get a hug from a kid or a high five and we’ve made their day.
“Everyone is accepted, everyone is loved, everyone is needed. There’s no discrepancy.”
The older students in the program see the rewards of their involvement.
“Every day I look forward to PALS,” said Emmagen Allen, a PAL. “It’s a really good experience to be able to watch these kids grow as well as grow with them as a person. I think it’s really sweet to be able to bond with them and make relationships.”
PALs spend at least one period per day with their assigned preschool students. These periods might correlate with gym time, instructional time, lunchtime or any other part of a preschooler’s day. Each PAL has a unique experience in the program.
“I feel like every day is different when you’re a PAL. You know you’re never doing the same thing. It’s never a dull moment because whether all the kids are there, you’re missing one or they’re all out sick, you’ve always got something to do,” PAL Ella Pearson said. “You walk in, and there’s always those few kids who run up and give you a hug. That just makes your day better.”
PAL Xandra Draper, who is with students during their center’s time, said she enjoys watching the students as they work.
“You get to see what their interests are, and you get to create an imaginary world with them if you want to,” said Draper. “They have their first experiences with certain things when we’re in there. It’s fun the first time they ever make a basketball in the goal — that’s a memory that I want to be there for.”
The responsibilities of being a PAL include communicating with preschool teachers, helping preschool students grow and learn and living up to the expectations of a role model. As they fulfill these duties, PALs learn from preschoolers.
“The program helps me learn about how different all the kids are,” said Pearson. “When you do spend as much time around them as we do, you realize that they do learn in very different ways and they learn at different paces, and that goes for all the way up to our age.”
As the district moves forward, Roberts said the PALs program would continue to be central to the community and culture surrounding it.
“There’s community acceptance and a community expectation. I think if next year, we said, ‘We’re not going to have PALs anymore,’ I would get phone calls,” Roberts said. “It’s an expectation. ‘I was a PAL. I want my kid to be a PAL.'”
The program worked to address the district’s past concerns. Now, the program works to build a better future for Carlisle County people of all ages.