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Joani McCray with her class at the Early Head Start program.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Back to school: The youngest won’t remember their first day

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Joanie McCray and Jessica Vereen are pillars of calm amidst chaos.

They are teachers in the first Early Head Start class for children under age 3 at the Pawleys Island Child Development Center. The class opened last week after renovations to a former magistrate’s courtroom were completed over the summer.

There are eight children ranging in age from Nyla, 7 months, to Lauren, 2 years. Nyla doesn’t walk and has a special place as the class baby. Lauren is a natural leader, “our assistant,” McCray said. Even at this young age, the children have begun to learn from their teachers and each other. One is “potty trained” and another is copying her. If Lauren looks under a table, others do too.

“Everything I have read affirms what we have known for a good time now that if we wait ‘til kindergarten we have missed out on the time the brain is most developing,” said Carolyn Ellis, co-chairman of the Early Learning Council of Georgetown County, an organization supported by the Bunnelle Foundation aiming to influence the development of young children. “The brain, by the time kids start to school in 5-year-old

kindergarten or first grade, is 90 percent developed. That doesn’t mean we can’t remediate and catch up, but a lot of the connections of the brain really develop in those early, early years. If we can get a child in a rich and stimulating environment and relationship with people who talk to them and respond to them the better that child will be.”

Lillian Reid, director of the Pawleys Island Child Development Center, said finding the right kind of teachers for these young children was the most important part of getting the class started. She said there are eight more children on a waiting list for the class. “The criteria for the teachers is hard to come by,” Reid said. “I just don’t have the teachers.”

Reid said parents want to get their children in the class. “Parents were always aware of how important it is for early intervention when it comes to child care,” she said, “but it wasn’t affordable for most. This particular program gives them an opportunity to let children be in a structured environment, build social skills and be separated from mom or dad and give them a chance to grow.”

The Early Head Start class is being funded with a state grant through First Steps. The classroom space became available when the Pawleys Island magistrate’s court was moved to Litchfield Exchange by the county. “When they first presented the idea,” Reid said, “I thought it was hopeless. There was no room in our existing building. When they saw the mobile unit, they said they would help us get licensed. Everything worked out.”

That leaves two very patient teachers caring for eight demanding youngsters from 7:30 a.m. to between 3 and 5 p.m. Pieces of Oreo cookie bring a temporary calm to the class when all else fails. “Clap, clap, clap your hands,” McCray sings along with a recording. “Clap your hands together.” Nobody seems to be listening.

“Two minutes, that’s their attention span,” McCray said.

The teachers work in short bursts of inspiration. The color of the day is red. They spell it aloud. The color, the word and the letters are planted like seeds in fertile soil. Dr. Amanda Drosieko, a pediatrician in Murrells Inlet, says the very early stage of human brain development is called “plastic” because the brain is moldable. “Neurons in the brain grow like limbs to contact other neurons so transmission can occur,” she said. That growth, called myelination, is most rapid in a child’s first two years.

Parents, then, are a child’s most important teacher of all, Ellis said. “Head Start and Early Head Start require parents to be engaged and get some training in how to help the child be turned on to learning,” she said. “It’s even important before birth.”

Deborah Roll said she was excited to get her son Julian, 22 months old, into the class. “I did a lot of reading with my kids,” she said. “I wanted something that would continue that.”

In addition to reading, teachers sing and talk straightforwardly to the children. The students understand far more than one might think. McCray asks Tiana why she is crying, and she stops. When three others start crying, she taps the tabletop like a bongo drum. “Where are your hands?” she asks. “Where are your fingers?” When fingers start to wiggle, she adds the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

As lunchtime approaches, the children are dressed in yellow bibs that attach in back with Velcro. They resemble raincoats. Vereen sings along with a recording of “Going on a Bear Hunt” while she prepares the chairs and tables. Once served, the lunch of mixed fruit, green beans and pizza goes all over the place. Julian mixes his fruit and beans into a work of art. Most eat their fruit and poke at their beans with a plastic fork.

Teachers take advantage of the moment to bring out the little cots for nap time. The structure is part of learning. Lauren begins to remove other children’s bibs, whether they are finished or not. She’s the first on her cot and says “Night, night.” Others follow suit.

Soon, the lights are turned low and soft music fills the room. It’s hypnotic, and the little ones settle. “Now,” McCray said, “we have a minute to catch our breath.”

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