WESTERLY — Westerly Public Schools Inclusion Preschool teachers and other staff members showered their students with affection Thursday during a rolling rally organized to celebrate the program's achievement in Gov. Gina Raimondo's reading challenge.

The governor cited the program as the top performer in the preschool category during her May 3 press briefing. In April, Raimondo challenged the state's students to record the amount of time they spent reading throughout the month. For preschool children the hours were logged by parents who read to their children.

"Big congratulations to the Westerly Preschool program," Raimondo said during her daily briefing on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With all schools in the state closed since March, Raimondo issued the challenge as a means to help keep children focused on learning from their homes.

"We're proud of everybody and we're extra proud of you guys knocking it out of the park with your reading. I think that's fantastic," Raimondo said after reading the list of winning schools.

On Thursday teachers, speech, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, para-professionals and administrators lined up, some holding signs, and all cheering as parents drove their children through the parking lot of Babcock Hall, home of the pre-school program.

"We love you, we miss you," the teachers and others repeated as a steady stream of vehicles drove slowly through the parking lot.

The program is offered to both children with special needs and their peers. The program's 135 children are 3-5 years old. While distance learning and teaching can be challenging, some benefits have come to light, said Christina Allen, the district's early childhood coordinator.

"The feedback we've heard is that the parents are learning more about what the children know and what they need to know now that we're seeing them and talking to them every day. They're so much more involved," Allen said.

Teachers and therapists are working through the internet with students in both one-on-one and group sessions.The group sessions have been useful as a means for the children to see, virtually, their friends from school. "They're so excited to see each other. That interaction with each other is important," Allen said.

The teachers also suggest education activities for parents to do with their children at home. The focus on reading is important, Allen said, as the children approach kindergarten.

"Hopefully it helps develop that interest so they can carry that on when their parents aren't reading to  them," Allen said.

Mary Brancato, a teacher in the program, was excited to see her students in person for the first time in weeks.

"It's so wonderful to see their faces again. I think the hardest thing about being out is not seeing them every day, not having that contact with them — especially this age group — but it really was a spirit-lifter seeing them today," Brancato said.

When parents read to their children it helps the children build language skills and comprehension and helps with attention span, Brancato said.

The recognition by the governor is a credit to the childrens' parents, Brancato said.

"We're just so thrilled that our families really committed to this," she said.

Barnes and Noble provided the program with a box full of children's books as a prize.

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