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Education: Along with excitement, expectations high for all-day pre-K

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Students headed to class at Georgetown County schools Wednesday. Am’Unique Smith wasn’t among them. Neither was Kaleigh Henn. Their turn will come Monday.

The girls are among 40 students who will enter the first full-day pre-K classes at Waccamaw Elementary School. They got a look inside their classrooms and met their teachers this week. They will get home visits from those teachers today or tomorrow.

“I’m working hard to get ready for you,” Len Oliver told Kaleigh. Oliver has been a pre-K teacher at Waccamaw for nine years. She had 40 students divided between morning and afternoon sessions. This year she’ll have 20, but they’ll be with her from 8 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.

“Academically, it’s going to be more time,” Oliver said. “I’m excited.”

The Georgetown County School District received about $900,000 this year in state funds to expand all of its pre-K classes to a full day. It had full-day classes in four of its nine elementary schools last year, but those were paid for by federal money, known as Title I funds, that are available to expand programs for students from low-income families. Schools like Waccamaw Elementary aren’t eligible for those funds. And federal rules prevented the district from using Title I funds for full-day pre-K if the classes were offered at all schools, a policy called “supplement, not supplant.”

“I was very excited,” said Erika Smith, Am’Unique’s mother. “I think she’ll learn even more being here.”

Am’Unique made her self at home in the kitchen of Ashley Maring’s classroom during a meet-the-teacher event. Asked what she is looking forward to, the 4-year-old said, “I don’t know” and disappeared behind a toy can of fruit cocktail.

She’s ready to go to school like her older cousins, Smith said, and already talking about riding the bus. Unlike other students, pre-K students will get a 45 minute nap or rest period.

“Early learning, that’s what it’s all about,” said Vervatine Reid, the Waccamaw Elementary principal. “At third grade, they’re reading to learn not learning to read.”

State standardized tests begin at third grade. Reid is among the principals who have put full-day pre-K funding in their annual budget requests to the county school board. Waccamaw Elementary has seven students on a waiting list for the pre-K class. If the school gets 20, the district will add another teacher, Reid said.

Maring was hired after the funding was announced this summer as the second pre-K teacher at Waccamaw. “For so long I’ve been alone,” Oliver said. “It will be fun to have someone to plan and share with.”

There is a teacher and a para-professional in each class. They follow a curriculum called OWL, an acronym for Opening the World of Learning. Much of its emphasis is on reading and writing, Maring said. The district will also add a math curriculum.

But the academic component is only part of what teachers and administrators expect from pre-K. “The greatest thing this program is going to do is all around,” Oliver said. “Social, physical and academic. They think they’re playing, but they’re actually learning.”

With the half-day program, “it was a bit rushed,” she added.

While other district schools with full-day pre-K have seen improved social and language skills for students heading to kindergarten, Patti Hammel, the district’s director of student performance, cautioned the school board about expecting the results to show up in third-grade test scores.

“Four-year-old programs for students didn’t necessarily translate into achievement at third grade,” she was told at an early-learning conference she attended this summer. But the experience “adds to accomplishments,” she said. “They remained in a family setting and raised children who valued education.”

“There’s a lot of back-and-forth out there,” about the benefits of a pre-K education, Board Member Arthur Lance said. A former elementary school principal, he said he can rebut those who think it doesn’t make a difference.

There is a heightened sense of expectation for pre-K, Maring said. She taught at McDonald Elementary in Georgetown for seven years before taking a break to raise a family. But she noted that the program has always been full-day for the teachers. The difference is now they have half as many students to focus on.

In half-day pre-K, “it’s very hard to focus on everyone’s needs,” she said. “There’ll be a lot more opportunities” with full-day.

“I was surprised by it. I thought it would be half-day,” said Betsy Henn, Kaleigh’s mother. “I was excited about it. I don’t have to worry about transportation and after-care.”

The full-day program means the district will be able to drop its midday bus routes for pre-K. But if the state doesn’t provide funds next year – or if the district doesn’t qualify based on the percentage of students from low-income families – the district will have to fund full-day pre-K. Unlike other grades, pre-K students don’t factor into state funding for local districts.

School Superintendent Randy Dozier believes an improving economy will enable the district to pickup pre-K funding in the future.

But he believes the state funds will continue for a little while. “Next year is an election year,” he said.

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