August 14, 2012 9:53:03 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - email@example.com
Monday dawned dark and dreary, but Caledonia Elementary School's new pre-kindergarten class was awash in primary colors and big grins from the four-year-olds, who have no idea they're making history.
This is the first year the Lowndes County School District has offered a pre-K class at each of its three elementary schools, but school board members are already seeking ways to expand the program.
Caledonia Principal Roger Hill is among those educators hoping the board approves a tuition-based pre-K program at next month's meeting so more students can participate this year.
At the moment, free classes are being federally-funded by Title I, but to be eligible, students must live in a single-parent household, have a low socioeconomic status or have a low score on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), which measures vocabulary and verbal ability.
An additional limitation is the requirement that every class with more than 10 students have a teaching assistant, a luxury that won't be available without district funds or tuition fees. Class sizes are capped at 20 students.
During Friday morning's board meeting, LCSD Superintendent Lynn Wright pushed the board to approve a plan to offer tuition-based pre-K at $325 per month and hire three teaching assistants, opening the program to 30 more students. But some board members balked, saying without knowing exactly how much it will cost to hire the teaching assistants, it's difficult to know if the program will pay for itself.
"I think we need to get our feet wet first," Board President Jane Kilgore said during the meeting. "I'd just like to see some hard figures."
Board member Jacqueline Gray asked Wright to also consider the financial ramifications of charging $225 per month instead of $325.
The board voted 3-1 Friday to implement the tuition-based program if funds are available. Kilgore voted against the measure, saying she would like to see more specifics first.
Parents have expressed interest in pre-K for years, Hill said. So far, seven or eight have signed up in Caledonia to be notified if a tuition-based program becomes available. Four or five have signed up at New Hope Elementary School and two have signed up at West Lowndes Elementary School.
But it will be easy to get 10 students, and even if they start next month, they should still be able to catch up to their peers, Hill said.
The most important thing is to get them into the classroom as soon as possible.
Without preschool, students enter kindergarten as much as 18 months behind their peers, and many never catch up, reports the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Brunswick, N.J.
Hill said students from single-parent households may suffer even more acutely, because their parents do not always have the time, energy or education to teach their children the things they could learn in a structured pre-K program.
"It's very effective," he said. "If we had all the pre-K kids in the district in school, we could really make a difference."
Right now, students who enter kindergarten run the gamut, from those who can read to those who haven't yet grasped the concept of letters and numbers.
Even though Caledonia is a star school -- one of only five districts in the state to rank at the top of the Mississippi Department of Education's test-based accountability scale -- it becomes increasingly harder to remain at the top, Hill said. Every year, schools must demonstrate academic growth. To remain competitive, Caledonia will have to give its students every advantage possible.
But although pre-K has been taught in the West Point and Columbus school districts for more than two decades, it remains an anomaly in most of Mississippi, which is one of only 11 states without a state-funded pre-K program.
Only 53 of the state's 152 school districts even offer preschool, serving a scant 11 percent of the state's four-year-olds.
'They soak up everything'
LeeAnn Griffin taught kindergarten in the West Point School District for three years, then taught pre-K two years before coming to Caledonia to teach pre-K.
She said while she loved kindergarten, pre-K is special.
"The children are like sponges," she said as she watched a volunteer teach a child to eat spaghetti with a fork during Monday's lunch period. "They soak up everything you tell them. I love to see the light bulbs come on."
By the end of the year, she expects her students to know their alphabet, numbers zero to 20, colors, shapes and basic classroom and social skills.
During an eight-hour day, the students rotate between five classroom areas, focusing on computer skills, reading and writing, science, math and home living, which teaches teamwork and social interaction through interactive role playing.
Of the 10 children in her class, none can read and only a few know their alphabet, but nine are computer-savvy.
Her experience as a kindergarten teacher helps her anticipate what her students will need, with the pre-K curriculum dovetailing easily into the kindergarten course-work.
Wright said he, like Griffin, believes pre-K is essential to providing a strong foundation for the county's students.
"Having a quality pre-K program should greatly enhance our students' chances of being successful," Wright said Monday. "I think we'll see the results as they come on up through elementary school."
Parents' reasons for enrolling their children in pre-K, which is optional, are varied.
For single mother Samantha Payne, who works at Cattleman's Steakhouse, the free program is ideal for her daughter, Reese Baird.
Reese can count, and she knows some of her shapes, but letters and numbers are a new experience, as is the interaction with other children.
But last week, on the first day of "big school," Reese ran ahead of her mother, eager to play with the other children and make friends.
"She told me to leave," Payne said. "She was ready. She walked on in, playing with the other little girls. She didn't cry, but I cried a little bit."
The social component of pre-K can't be overlooked, said Jessie Jordan. Her daughter, Kylee, is a student in Griffin's class, and her sons, Brantley, 7, and Brody, 6, also attend Caledonia Elementary.
Jordan has seen firsthand the difference between a dedicated pre-K program and daycare, and she a firm believer in the benefits of pre-K.
Brantley attended the Anderson Grove HeadStart program, and he did well in kindergarten, but Brody, who attended the Child Development Center at Columbus Air Force Base, has struggled with discipline and other issues.
She was paying $40 to send Kylee to Bright Beginnings Daycare two days a week, but when she heard about Lowndes County's pre-K program, she jumped at the chance to enroll her.
Most of Kylee's social interaction is limited to her older brothers' friends, who tell her she's too little to play with them. For the little girl who is a "social butterfly," pre-kindergarten is a chance to interact with her peers.
There's another advantage as well, Jordan said. She believes sending children to pre-K strengthens the parent-child bond by allowing them some distance from one another and fostering independence.
When her sons started kindergarten, they were fraught with anxiety, she said. Even now, the two boys want a kiss from her in the morning and will tell her good-bye four or five times before finally going inside the school.
She believes pre-K will strengthen Kylee's self-sufficiency.
"She jumped up and down and screamed and hollered in excitement (when she learned she was going to school)," Jordan said. "She plopped right down on the carpet (in class on the first day) and said, 'Bye. You can leave now.' Now that she's with her own age, she's in heaven."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.