Education

Documentary about Eastern Kentucky preschoolers shows hope for distressed regions

A preschool student rides a bus to the Owsley County Early Childhood Education school. A documentary that premieres Tuesday on PBS focuses on efforts to improve the lives of preschoolers in the Eastern Kentucky county.
A preschool student rides a bus to the Owsley County Early Childhood Education school. A documentary that premieres Tuesday on PBS focuses on efforts to improve the lives of preschoolers in the Eastern Kentucky county.

A documentary that premieres Tuesday on PBS and Sept. 19 on KET focuses on efforts to improve the lives of preschoolers in Owsley County, which has one of the lowest median household income levels in the country.

“Class of ’27” from filmmaker James Rutenbeck shows that the children have “caring and competent adults preparing them for better futures,” a news release said.

“Adversity can bring out the best and worst in people,” Rutenbeck told the Herald-Leader on Monday, “and clearly Owsley County has been facing tough times for many years. But my crew and I found ourselves welcomed and appreciated there from day one. The school system opened their doors to us and introduced us to families who were eager to tell us their stories and serve us dinner. The preschool teacher Betsy Coomer and the entire Head Start staff were deeply committed to offering their kids the very best in child development.“

In a trailer for the documentary, Rutenbeck, said, “I do see hope. I saw it in Betsy Coomer.”

Only about half of Kentucky students are ready for kindergarten each year, but Owsley County Superintendent Tim Bobrowski said Monday that his district’s kindergarten readiness scores are above the state average.

“I’m getting them ready for kindergarten,” Coomer, who is now retired, says in the documentary. She tells students that they are going to learn in preschool so they can go to kindergarten, and to first grade, and to high school. The documentary shows her treating the students as if they are her children, teaching them academics through story telling and even making sure they know how to open a milk carton, a skill they will need in kindergarten.

“One day I was sitting and talking to one of the Head Start aides,” Rutenbeck said. “She was cutting out paper sea creatures for an upcoming lesson. She told me that many of the children in Owsley County hadn’t ever been to the beach and that the test makers in California assumed that children across the country would know the basics about marine life. This aide loved those kids and understood how important her role, however small, was in helping them overcome one of many such obstacles they faced and will face as they grow up. The system has an exemplary early childhood program because they understand how critically important it is to the futures of their children.”

At the same time, Cleda Turner of Owsley County Outreach organizes food packets for hungry children to take home for the weekend on Fridays after school.

Churches and private donors provide the food and money for the food program.

“A hungry child cannot learn. We as Americans forget that,” Turner says in the documentary.

The film notes that some of the preschool children are being raised by grandparents because their own parents were addicted to drugs.

In the documentary, Bobrowski talks about the ill effects of parental drug addiction on the development of students. He said 27 percent of students in the district are being raised by grandparents.

“Living in an economically depressed area is tough,” he said Monday in the interview.

One preschool student in the film says her hope for the future is to one day work at the nursing home where her mother works. She wants to become her mother’s boss, the person who gives her mother a paycheck.

“Class of ’27” is presented as part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, an initiative from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America keep more students on the path to graduation. It is part of the America Reframed Series.

The film begins with Kentucky writer Silas House reflecting on the importance of committed educators in economically struggling communities.

In addition to Owsley County, the documentary shows children in the Upper Midwest and in West Coast migrant camps.

“Each of the three portraits demonstrates that children from distressed communities, despite their circumstances, are more likely to grow into productive adults if they receive support in their earliest years,” a news release said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

“Class of 27” airs on KET at 9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19.

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