Pre-K opening day confusion? Nope
Excitement, yes, as 4-year-olds, their parents and teachers smoothly mark the debut of state-funded prekindergarten.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published August 4, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Jansen Al didn't kiss her mom goodbye Wednesday morning as she raced off for her first day of state-funded prekindergarten.
The ponytailed 4-year-old was just too excited about starting school.
"I love school," Jansen said as she tried to catch magnetized plastic fish at one of the learning centers in her Garden Crest Christian Academy classroom. "I want to meet new friends. I want to learn all about things that I like."
Jansen's mother, Tara Al, was a little miffed by the missed kiss. But her joy at being able to send her youngest child to prekindergarten near her north St. Petersburg home - at state expense - eased the pain.
"If it weren't for this, she wouldn't be going to school," Al said of the $400-million, voter-mandated program. "None of my other kids went to preschool, so this is a huge, huge asset."
Pinellas County is the first Tampa Bay area school district to begin pre-K. Hillsborough County's program will open today, with Pasco, Citrus and Hernando joining in next week.
None of the predicted chaos and confusion materialized Wednesday. Four-year-olds did not pour into Pinellas public schools seeking seats, and parents did not stream into private providers or registration centers clamoring for last-minute entry into the program.
By the time classes ended at noon, 3,360 children had enrolled with 151 different providers. Officials said at least 614 seats went unclaimed.
"We've had a little less volume than we expected," said Katie Yeates, project coordinator for Coordinated Childcare of Pinellas, which enrolls children for state pre-K. "Everything is sort of humming along."
Children at Bridges to Learning Preschool in southern St. Petersburg spent the morning getting to know one another and their teachers. When outside play time came at 10 a.m., the uniformed students - even those who had never been in school before - showed no apprehension as they rode bikes, chased lizards and swung on playground equipment.
The teachers held back some of the academic work, saying social integration had to come first.
"We have told them, "The goal is to get ready for kindergarten,' " teacher Gloria Bryant said. "It's new, but I think it will be an advantage. ... One thing is for sure: You have to try. They put the money out there."
At Garden Crest Christian Academy, the mood was similarly upbeat. Children worked on their fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination while playing with Legos and other toys, barely noticing they were learning.
Director Evadne Tilbury said she was pleased to see so many families taking advantage of the free hours the state is providing. She disagreed with criticisms that state pre-K is simply a tuition reimbursement program, noting that about half her students had not been in school before.
Teacher Donna Naples was happy that the state mandated two teachers to every 18 children. She said it was much easier to help students than when she was alone with 20 kids.
"It's a big help," Naples said. "I'm excited."
Not all classes began Wednesday. Other Pinellas preschools will open their pre-K programs in coming weeks. Like the rest, they must provide 540 hours of instruction before the end of May.
Registration also continues. Thomasina Williams stopped by the Coordinated Childcare office on Fifth Avenue N to sign up her son, Allen Bryant, for a school that starts next week.
"It's wonderful," Williams said. "My son is happy. He came home yesterday saying, "I'm going to pre-K!' He's ready to go to school. I hope a lot more parents get in it."
But pre-K isn't just good for kids, Tara Al said.
"You don't even know how happy I am this morning. All three of my kids are in school," she said. For the first time in years, she could go to the library and actually read a book.
"It's the best day of my life."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified August 4, 2005, 12:12:05]
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