CEDAR FALLS -- The best preschool educators take advantage of teachable moments to bolster their curriculum.

Winter's first snowfall can be used to introduce the concept of weather. Snack time may lead to a discussion of manners. And art class lends itself to a review of the colors.

The staff at the Scottish Rite preschool in Cedar Falls are always on the lookout for those opportunities, but unlike ordinary classroom teachers, the educators focus the resulting lessons on speech and language development. The center, based at the University of Northern Iowa, was founded this fall to help students who struggle with speech sound formation, language delay or social communication.

"We conduct ourselves a lot like a normal preschool," said Prof. Theresa Kouri, director of the university's speech and hearing clinic. "But we're more individualized, and throughout the day we're working with the children on their specific speech and language issues."

That technique was on display Thursday when MaKenna Carlson dipped her pink sleeve into glue during craft time. The 2½-year-old was born with impaired hearing and learned her first words through sign language. The girl was fitted with cochlear implants at 16 months, and is building her spoken English vocabulary at the preschool.

"Oh no!" cried graduate speech clinician, Alisha Sanchez.

"Dirty," she exclaimed, while placing her right hand under her chin and wiggling her fingers -- the corresponding sign for the word.

Little MaKenna nodded and watched as Sanchez dabbed away the mess with a tissue.

"Every child in here comes with different needs," said Kouri, who witnessed the exchange. "Our job is to make sure that within the course of the day, we address those needs."

UNI's RiteCare program is part of a network of speech and hearing clinics sponsored by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States. The Iowa chapter of the organization funds the Cedar Falls center, as well as a summer program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The group plans to start a clinic in Davenport next year.

"We want to reach as many kids as we can," said Scottish Rite member Sid Morris, a retired Waterloo educator. "Early intervention is probably one of the most crucial things for children with speech and language delays. The sooner they get the help they need the better so that by the time they get to school they are ready to learn."

The Scottish Rite Foundation contributed about $70,000 to the UNI RiteCare preschool in its first year. Students meet Monday through Thursday, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Nine children are currently receiving Rite Care services.

Most families pay about $300 per semester for the classes, but no one is turned away due to financial constraints. A licensed speech and language pathologist oversees the program, while roughly 10 graduate student clinicians assist in preparing lessons and leading class activities.

MaKenna's mother, Rheannon Carlson, said RiteCare has helped her daughter learn new words.

"They are getting her to speak more," said the Cedar Falls woman. "She really couldn't hear until she was implanted, so this program has really helped her get started catching up to the other kids her age."

During story time Thursday MaKenna got to put her burgeoning language skills to work. Graduate student clinician Sanchez stopped her recitation of an "Old MacDonald" tale to ask the preschooler to name the animal on the page.

MaKenna looked uncertainly at the book, then back at another clinician who said "horse," while signing the name for the mammal.

"Horse," the child mouthed silently, making a fist near her temple and bending her fingers. "Horse."

Contact Mary Stegmeir at (319) 291-1482 or mary.stegmeir@wcfcourier.com.

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