Parents and children participate in the Learning Neighborhood pilot program hosted by KLRN and PBS.
Parents and children participate in the Learning Neighborhood pilot program hosted by KLRN and PBS. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

What would Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood look like if it were recreated today?

While KLRN, PBS, and Committee for Children aren’t sure if cozy red cardigans and model trains would play a role, they know Mr. Rogers would still be talking about feelings and validating his young viewers’ emotions.

That’s the idea behind KLRN’s Learning Neighborhood, a 10-week pilot program on which the three organizations are collaborating for kids who have not enrolled in any formal school environment. The goal is to test strategies in a social-emotional learning program that helps prepare children for kindergarten.

“PBS has been doing this work with kids for 50 years and if you go back to our patron saint, Fred Rogers …  he was talking about this and it was groundbreaking,” said Sara Schapiro, PBS Vice President of Education. “He was talking about how kids are unique, they have feelings, [and] they have emotions. They aren’t meant to be seen but not heard. It is very much going back to those original teachings but building a 21st-century version of it.”

PBS chose San Antonio for the location of its first pilot program because of its success in the community and because there is a large number of 4-year-olds who don’t already attend pre-kindergarten. Pre-K 4 SA officials have estimated about 6,000 of San Antonio’s 25,000 4-year-olds don’t attend any form of pre-k.

The weekly program focuses on social-emotional learning and takes place each Wednesday on the Westside of San Antonio in a converted elementary school. The curriculum is pulled from other programs at KLRN and Second Step Early Learning Curriculum from the Committee for Children.

“We have a really important role to play in supporting children and creating a pre-k like environment and experience for kids who can’t attend pre-K,” Schapiro said.

Twenty-four students attend weekly with their caregivers to learn about their feelings and get a feel for a school-like environment. Each session is emotion-themed and kids participate in related activities. On Wednesday, students participated in show-and-tell with homemade puppets that represented different emotions.

During the class, the teacher called each student to the front of the circle and asked them to present their puppets. Crafted with popsicle sticks, socks, googly eyes, and paper bags, the puppets each had varying expressions.

“This one is happy and this one is…?” the teacher asked the circle.

“Mad,” the students responded in unison.

Next, the teacher read a story to the young children, aided by her own puppet, Maria. Maria drank water and spilled some on her dress. Maria’s friends laughed at her.

“How do you think Maria felt after her shirt was wet and her friends laughed at her?” the teacher asked. Students responded with various guesses: mad, sad, confused, and angry.

After the children answered, the teacher emphasized that while Maria was mad, she didn’t say mean things about her friends – an example meant to illustrate that there are many ways to deal with emotions.

This activity demonstrated some key takeaways for both the students and their caregivers. The adults attending with the children – a mix of parents and grandparents – remarked that since participating in the program, they felt more confident addressing emotions.

For instance, instead of asking their child to stop crying, the caregivers said they would try to understand the reason behind the meltdown. Their kids could better articulate the reason for their feelings, and their individual relationships were improving.

“We really enjoy it,” said Chenoa Magott, who brings her daughter Cecilia, 3, to the program. “She always wants to come home and tell her brother all about what she learned.”

Megan Wright, whose 3-year-old Vivian is enrolled in the program, also sees the benefits. Wright said she has learned so much about emotions from the program as a mother.

The activities provide a good starting point for discussion about feelings and how to cope with emotions, Wright said.

Throughout the week, KLRN also sends families texts and e-mails with relevant activities and videos to continue the learning back at home.

KLRN has been hosting “mobile pre-school programs” called Play and Learn for about 10 years, KLRN Director of Education Maricella Borroel said. The traditional Play and Learn curriculum is embedded in the pilot.

KLRN also is testing the program in a separate track with students in more formal classroom settings – within HeadStart centers, a traditional preschool, a registered home, two licensed homes, and a daycare center. Altogether about 160 students are involved in the pilot programs.

Officials involved with planning the pilot told the Rivard Report that they want to learn as much as they can from the participants so they can take the positive elements and replicate them.

“It is really to decrease the level of social isolation as well in the community. We know that when our kids are at home with somebody they are oftentimes at home with an adult, so when they bring them to these community classrooms, they are play-based for peer-to-peer social interactions,” Borroel said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.