Northwest Center’s IMPACT program is working to create more inclusive pre-kindergarten education in Auburn and across King County.
Preschoolers are expelled at a higher rate than any other grade level, and Black preschoolers are expelled disproportionately. Many parents of kids with disabilities or special needs struggle to find preschools that are willing to enroll their kid, said IMPACT director Amy Bender.
IMPACT’s mission is to give teachers the tools and knowledge to accommodate all students and prevent expulsion. IMPACT is one of the programs funded by King County’s Best Start for Kids initiative, which residents recently voted to fund through a levy.
Northwest Center has specialized in inclusive education since its creation in the 1960s. Currently, Northwest Center operates two inclusive preschools in the Seattle area. Around 40% of the students at the center’s preschools have a disability.
The demand for inclusive early education was far greater than what they could accommodate in two schools, said Bender.
“We had a wait list of over 1,000 kids, and a lot of those kids on our wait list were kids with special needs,” Bender said. “We’d hear such sad stories from families who are calling, trying to get their kids in because their kids had been denied access to so many other childcare facilities because perhaps they have Down syndrome or they have a feeding tube or a wheelchair, and they can’t find anywhere to take their child.”
To address the demand for inclusive preschool, in 2018, Northwest Center created IMPACT, which stands for Inclusive Mentorship Program for Increasing Access to Childcare Team. The idea was to bring their model of inclusive education to existing early education providers rather than building another preschool that could only serve an additional 60-90 kids.
“We wanted to take the knowledge we have at Northwest Center and train the community on how to feel more confident and better support children and families,” Bender said.
They assembled a team of about six people with backgrounds ranging from early childhood education, occupational therapy, public health and psychology — and got to work. Since its inception in 2018, IMPACT has reached about 21,000 students, Bender said.
Working with educators
Sometimes something as simple as a cheap pair of noise-cancelling headphones is all a student needs to be successful in class.
Early on in the program, a preschool provider contacted IMPACT for help with a 3-year-old student who was disruptive in the classroom. A consultant visited the classroom and determined the student was likely just overstimulated by the loud and chaotic classroom environment. The IMPACT consultant gave the student some noise-cancelling headphones to try on and the student’s face immediately lit up, Bender said.
So far IMPACT has worked with three preschool providers in Auburn and 17 in the greater South King County area, Bender said. Now that the Best Start for Kids levy passed, IMPACT will continue to advance inclusive early education throughout the county, Bender said.
IMPACT works with early childhood education providers in a couple of different ways.
They offer inclusive education training and in-class consultations, Bender said. IMPACT consultants can work with administrators to develop better policy and procedures, or train teachers on how to handle challenging behaviour, Bender said.
IMPACT also addresses the disproportionate expulsion of Black students by working with educators to identify implicit biases and understand how to overcome them, Bender said. A study by the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Office found that while Black boys make up 18% of preschool students, they account for 42% of suspensions.
“We do onsite coaching and mentorship where our inclusion consultants will go out and do classroom observations and work directly with administrators and hands-on coaching in the classroom and model some new strategies for a teacher,” Bender said.
Working with IMPACT is completely voluntary, which is one of the things that makes the program more effective, Bender said.
“No one is required to work with us. Everyone wants to work with us,” Bender said. “We’re not a governing body, we’re not the state licensor, so we’re not going to get them in trouble, which allows for a much more collaborative relationship.”
Teachers and administrators report higher levels of enrolling students with disabilities or special needs after working with IMPACT, Bender said. In addition to this, administrators report that they’re less likely to expel students with disruptive behavior.