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Class of 2027: A full day with a pre-K class

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

They line up at the classroom door with the book bags they carried in six and a half hours earlier, bags almost as big as they are. “What was the best part of the day,” Len Oliver asks, not wanting to let a scrap of time pass unused.

“Going outside,” said Nariyah Miller-Bellamy.

“Lying down,” said Jaiden Myers.

“I’m thinking,” said Bryce Krechel.

Meet the Class of 2027. It’s the first group of children at Waccamaw Elementary in Pawleys Island to spend a full day in the pre-kindergarten class. Until the Georgetown County School District received state funds this year, the full-day classes were limited to five of its nine elementary schools. Last year, 4-year-olds at Waccamaw attended either the morning or the afternoon pre-K class, two and a half hours each.

Oliver said she could already tell the difference the full day has made and it wasn’t even the end of the first week. To start with, the students, who begin to arrive around 7:30 a.m. go straight to their cubbies, hang up their bags and gather on the multi-colored rug that is the focus of much of the day’s activities. “You know what? You did just like the big kids, kindergarten and first grade,” Oliver tells them.

Even with the extra time, the pace isn’t leisurely. At 7:50, there are stretching exercises. And with that comes the chance to squeeze in a few concepts: how high, how wide, how low, how thin. That’s followed by a review of the alphabet. “A is for alligator, F is for fox, C is for cat,” Oliver says as she holds up picture cards.

They are tripped up by the N and the I. N is for newt. I is for iguana. “They do kind of look like each other,” Oliver says, referring to the picture.

Children continue to arrive and find a place on the rug. There are 16 by the time the 8 a.m. announcements begin. Then the Pledge of Allegiance, which begins by Oliver explaining that the right hand goes over the heart.

Before they settle in for a story, there’s time for some dancing. “Twist, Hokey-Pokey or Mashed Potato?” Oliver asks. After a few minutes of mashing potatoes, they settle in front of Oliver’s rocking chair. Story time starts with a rhyme and some finger play: “These are grandmother’s glasses,” they begin with fingers forming two circles in front of their eyes.

The last child arrives as Oliver reads “Bee-Bim Bop.” She’s in tears and Teia Thomas, the paraprofessional who assists Oliver, takes her aside until she is ready to join the class.

The pre-K classes in the county use a curriculum called OWL, an acronym for Opening a World of Learning. It wasn’t due to start until this week, but Oliver’s class had already launched on the section devoted to family. “Bee-Bim Bop” is a picture book about a girl who cooks the Korean rice dish of the title with her mother. This leads Oliver to ask the children for cooking stories.

“I used to help with the eggs,” Kah’Shair Green says. “I crack them.

There are so many answers that Oliver tells them to raise their hands so she can call on them. Many of the lessons Oliver teaches are ones that are basic: the Pledge, raising your hand, lining up, taking turns. Skylar Schoen sets the table. Baylor Richardson pours and stirs. Nariyah pours her own juice. “I pour my Mama’s juice, too,” she says.

“Tomorrow, we’re going to make a list,” Oliver says.

After a couple of minutes dancing the Twist, it’s time for centers: open cabinets that contain books, puzzles, paints, numbers, letters, shapes and other items that kids can get their hands on. But before everybody moves at once, Oliver says there are limits. Three people in the block center, two in science, two in painting, and so forth. The children repeat the numbers.

Centers are a lot like play. Oliver says the children think of it that way. Amari Mosely puts a lettered block on each of her fingers in the writing area. Then she writes on an erasable tablet with a marker. Campbell McLain picks up three shapes in the math area. They are pyramids, he says. “You can make music with them,” which he demonstrates by banging them on the countertop.

The first line of the day takes the class to get photos for ID tags. They walk quietly through the empty halls, staying to the right, hands not touching the walls.

They are back in the classroom for a few minutes before Oliver flicks the light switch. “What happens now?” she asks. The universal answer: “We clean up.” The promise of a story keeps the pace steady.

Back on the rug, students watch Oliver load a CD and pull out a copy of “Trouble at the Dinosaur Café.” She points to the words and flips the pages on cue. There are squeals as the tyrannosaurus comes in looking for meal. It’s so frightening, the kids ask Oliver to play it again. They anticipate the climax and act it out. One more time, they ask.

“Maybe before the end of the day,” Oliver says.

It’s already 9:30 a.m., time for a bathroom break before heading out to the playground. While some line up at the bathroom door, Oliver reads a pop-up book to the others.

On the playground, the class fans out, but gradually finds its way to a tunnel slide, prompting Oliver to direct traffic. After 20 minutes, they’re back in line, but taking the long way around to the classroom so they can stop at the water fountain. The small feet are louder now and hands reach out toward the artwork on the walls. They get back to the classroom and wash hands before lining up again to head for lunch. Most get their meal from the cafeteria, which offers a choice of chicken or ham, squash, fruit and low-fat milk.

The pre-K classes eat first. That gives them a few minutes to settle before the parade of older kids occupies their attention.

By 11, they’re settled back on the rug. They recite nursery rhymes that were overlooked earlier and a poem titled “Ten Little Fingers” that calls for hand movements. While that goes on Thomas sets out low blue cots.

Naps are optional. Quiet isn’t.

“If you’re not asleep and your eyes aren’t closed, you’re going to get a book,” Oliver says. “What to you?”

“Look at the pictures,” is the shared response.

After 20 minutes there are 10 with books, five wiggling and two sound asleep. Whispering has faded and only the flick of turning pages interrupts the drone of the air conditioner. The 45 minutes of quiet end with fidgeting and a regular pattern of bathroom visits before Thomas turns on the lights and calls for the cots to be returned to their stack. Two girls are still asleep. Two boys argue about who gets to put the books back on the shelf.

It’s noon. Time for music. “Bingo.” “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

The centers reopen after that and Oliver takes small groups aside to work on family portraits. Three girls gather in the “Dramatic Center,” which consists of a kitchen and costumes.

“Does your baby like milk or apple juice,” Hailey Mercer asks.

“You can mix it together,” Madison Greene said.

Oliver circulates to make sure the children do the same. There are tears at the blocks. Oliver wades in.

“You should ask,” she explains to one boy. “That’s called taking turns, sharing.”

And to a formerly tearful girl, she says, “Talk it over. Use your words.”

Cleanup takes a little longer in the afternoon, but eventually the class assembles on the rug for another story. As Oliver gives a lively reading of “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” Thomas sets out a snack of chocolate bear-shaped graham crackers and apple juice.

Snack time is one of the few times the children sit in chairs. There is another round of tears when Jaiden, a boy who is quick to flash a “thumbs up” sign to visitors, can’t find a chair. That problem is solved quickly.

But other problems require a serious talk.

“What happened at the snack table,” Oliver asks. “Something terrible happened.”

Some people didn’t clean up. That’s a topic she promises to revisit the next day.

There’s one more trip to the playground, but it doesn’t last long. By 2 p.m., the kids are flopped on the rug. Thomas leads small groups down the hall to the water fountain.

The last line of the day forms at 2:15 with 14 students who will ride the bus home. Oliver asks about their day.

Sleep was the best part, Colson Brewer says.

“Send them home happy and they’ll come back happy,” Oliver says.

She’s happy, too.

“You can see how individual and self-sufficient they are,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier about the whole thing.”

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