Top educator taught Kansas preschoolers alongside retirees

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Tabatha Rosproy

\In this Nov. 8, 2019 photo,Tabatha Rosproy, 2020 National Teacher of the Year, is shown with her pre-school students in Winfield, Kansas. The pre-school is housed at Cumbernauld Village, a retirement community and nursing home, and provides daily interaction between students and residents, who serve as "grandparent" volunteers in Rosproy's class. (photo courtesy Tabatha Rosproy via AP)

MISSION, Kan. – Teacher Tabatha Rosproy's preschool class met inside a nursing and retirement home in rural Kansas, forming a bond with residents that continued even when social distancing requirements due to the coronavirus pandemic forced her classroom to close down.

After a school year of unprecedented disruptions, Rosproy was chosen as the 2020 National Teacher of the Year for bridging the worlds of her community’s oldest and youngest. Her selection from among 55 award-winning teachers around the country was announced Thursday by the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the selection committee praising her in a statement for embodying “hope and inspiration."

The Winfield school district in which Rosproy teaches established the early childhood program two years ago inside Cumbernauld Village, a retirement community and nursing home that sits on 44 acres (17.8 hectares) in south-central Kansas. One year into the partnership, the program boasted the highest preschool literacy and math scores in the district. But more than that, Rosproy said, her students were “well connected and well loved” and the residents engaged as they snuggled with children while reading stories to them.

“Many of them don’t live near their own grandchildren or don’t have grandchildren," Rosproy said. “They felt so fortunate to be near the joy and livelihood of children.”

Intergenerational programs have existed in various forms for over a century, with more than 100 in existence, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, which advocates for them. Some combine child care with adult day care, while others house after-school programs in senior facilities or senior programs inside high schools.

Many have been closed amid the virus, although some with separate entrances have been allowed to continue operating with restrictions. Despite the challenges, Butts sees hope for the future, noting that the group's own polling shows public support for the model. She said older adults who are engaged with children are less depressed and report having more of a reason to live.

“Isolation," she said, “is so harmful for older adults but also for younger people.”

At Cumbernauld Village, the residents — Rosproy called them “grandparents" — joined the youngsters as they planted in the garden and played bingo and the beanbag game cornhole. They also watched from their windows as the children leaped into piles of leaves, took walks in the rain clad in galoshes and made snowmen.

“My heart is in that classroom,” she said. “This was what I was born to do."

Soon after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, schools across the state were closed. With thousands of COVID-19 nursing home deaths around the world, Cumbernauld Village also began restricting visitors. So far, it has had no cases, but the earliest preschoolers are expected to return there is the fall of 2021. The classroom, located in the heart of the main building, doesn't have its own entrance, making it impossible to fully separate the groups. It was a blow to residents.

“Not only was it a fun thing to have and a happy thing, but they felt they were making a difference in children’s lives,” said Linda Voth, executive director of Cumbernauld Village. “We miss them so much. This coronavirus thing really stinks. We hope to get them back as soon as possible.”

With Rosproy no longer allowed inside her classroom, she wrote messages on the windows of the nursing home. Parents also took pictures of the youngsters holding signs of encouragement, and Rosproy printed them off and gave them to the staff to hang inside.

The transition also has been a challenge for her students, some of whom were thrust into hastily arranged child care. She conducts Zoom meetings with them, but they aren't old enough to do worksheets or much else on their own, so she created packets filled with craft materials like googly eyes and made letter flashcards.

“A lot of what my role has become is parent coaching and encouragement," she said. “This has been hard on them. The whole world has been turned upside down. It is not easy to do all the things we do and monitor students' learning at the same time."

National Teachers of the Year typically travel the country, advocating for students and teachers. But amid the coronavirus, Rosproy plans to take advantage of digital platforms and media appearances to continue that same work.