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Preparing to step up to kindergarten

Teachers say all kids benefit from taking part in the state's voluntary prekindergarten program.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 25, 2007

Matthew Oliver, 5, one of the shyer students in the pre-kindergarten class listens to instructions at Campbell Park Elementary school in St. Petersburg. Oliver is one of the 16 students in the nine-week program to help students entering kindergarten with their reading, writing and social skills.
[Times photo: Willie J. Allen, Jr.]
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It was a day of tears and sighs, spilled milk and many requests to use the bathroom.

Cherub-faced Matthew wouldn't join the reading circle. Javen, the easily distracted girl with platinum hair, couldn't recognize any letters in her name. And Keith's hand was seemingly too small and weak to grasp a pencil.

By midmorning, one classmate had made a run for the door. Another was rolling on the floor.

Pati Kelly and Erin Galley, the two teachers charged with getting the roomful of 4- and 5-year-olds ready for kindergarten, left Campbell Park Elementary exhausted that late May afternoon.

They wondered: Will we be able to teach these kids the letters of the alphabet, get them to keep their hands out of each other's food, and persuade them to play nice on the playground in 10 short weeks?

That's essentially the goal of the state's Voluntary Prekindergarten program, or VPK. Approved by voters in 2002, the program debuted in 2005 and is free and available to all Florida 4-year-olds. It is delivered both by public schools and private providers and is offered two ways -- during the school year and in the summer.

Many teachers, including Kelly, 49, and Galley, 27, believe voluntary pre-k can be invaluable for kids, especially for those who already are being outpaced by their peers.

Several such children were among the 16 in the two teachers' classes at Campbell Park in St. Petersburg, one of 13 Pinellas schools that offered the program this summer.

While some kids arrived able to recite the alphabet, write their names and count to 30, others could barely distinguish a letter from a number. And while most children caught on quickly to the idea of using their "inside voice" and sitting "criss-cross applesauce," some struggled mightily all summer.

Both teachers think even the lowest-performing students made progress. But they know it won't be up to them to say if the kids are ready for kindergarten.

Instead, the children will be given a test called the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener between their 20th and the 30th days of kindergarten. Among other things, they will be asked to identify as many letters and letter sounds as possible in one minute.

Some local educators would like to see more emphasis placed on the progress kids make in pre-k, not just on their skill level at the end of it.

"We've seen children who have received very little support at home come into a pre-k session and make huge strides," said Janet Chapman, executive director of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas. "But they don't make large enough strides to be considered ready for kindergarten."

* * *

Two weeks into pre-k, Matthew Oliver still hovers around the edges of the reading circle. While other children talk about what they think will happen next in the story about the little red hen, Matthew stands on the sidelines, head bowed, hands in pockets.

When it's time to go to the playground, the 5-year-old sits alone at a table and watches the other kids pushing each other on the swings.

Back in class, he clings to his teachers, who ask him several times to join others for writers workshop.

Matthew's mother, Lisa Russell, 30, worries about her son, who was diagnosed with a speech impairment at age 3. Matthew has always preferred to let other kids take the lead, Russell says.

Matthew's father, David Oliver, 56, thought pre-k would be a "booster shot" for Matthew.

"If it gives him just a little more of an edge, then that's to his advantage," he said.

The social component is crucial to kindergarten readiness, said Donna Rippley, director of early childhood education for Pinellas County schools. Besides exposing children to language and literacy, pre-k teachers show children how to walk in a line, sit quietly in a circle and raise their hands instead of calling out.

They also help children like Matthew gain confidence by complimenting them and reinforcing good behavior.

"It's very hard for a child to become one of 20 in a classroom if that's something they haven't learned how to do," Rippley said. "They need the skills to be successful in a group setting in order to be able to learn. The two things go hand in hand."

* * *

Four children sit at a classroom table on a July afternoon, watching expectantly as the teacher approaches with a can of shaving cream. Javen Abbott squeals with delight when a foamy puff is dispensed in front of her. She spreads it out and begins tracing her name with her index finger.

First a capital J. Then a lower case A, followed by a V.

But the E and the N trail off in a squiggle.

Javen scrutinizes her work. She knows something is wrong, but doesn't know how to fix it.

Diagnosed with a severe learning disability when she was 3, Javen, now 5, has problems with coordination and balance. Sometimes, her brain doesn't send the proper signals to her body, frustrating her and those trying to understand what she's saying.

She has attended preschool with other children who have disabilities. She works on alphabet puzzles and listens to Sesame Street tapes at home. Her 12-year-old sister plays school with her.

"It doesn't matter how hard we have to work at it," says her mother, Kelly Abbott, 34. "That little girl is going to succeed."

But it won't be easy. Later this month, she'll start kindergarten with a group of students who are not learning-disabled.

Attending pre-k is vital for kids like Javen, said Galley, who, like Kelly, is certified in exceptional student education, as well as elementary education.

"What voluntary pre-k did for her, which I think is exciting, is it didn't let that summer gap happen," Galley said. "She didn't go for three months with no academic instruction."

* * *

Four-year-old Keith , the smallest boy in class, arrives on the last Monday of pre-k and finds his name tag on a table just inside the classroom door. Kelly puts a yellow crayon in his hand and instructs him to outline each letter.

"Show me the K," she says. Keith points to the K. "Now show me the H." Keith points to the E.

She tries again. "Show me the H." This time, Keith gets it right.

"Now show me the E," Kelly says. Keith points to the T.

With infinite patience, Kelly guides his index finger over each letter. Keith repeats the letters after her in a small, shy voice.

Kelly had warned Keith's mom at the outset that her son might be too young for kindergarten. He won't turn 5 until Aug. 31, the day before the cutoff for kindergarten eligibility this school year. Some classmates were almost a year older; all were physically stronger.

In fact, Kelly gave Keith finger exercises to get him to the point where he could hold a pencil. She spent hours showing him how to make straight lines and circles that eventually became letters and numbers.

While some education experts say the benefits of being older than one's peers diminish over time, other research indicates children who are older than their classmates have a head start that continues through their school career.

Keith's mom, Inga Dargan, 28, is convinced her son is ready. "Everywhere we go, he knows that K," she said. "He'll look at a license plate and say, 'Mom, that's a K."

* * *

As the last day of pre-k approached, there was a noticeable difference in the students. Bathroom breaks were less frequent, cafeteria spills nearly nonexistent.

Best of all, their vocabularies had increased. They had learned to think sequentially, articulating logical beginnings, middles and endings. They could all count past 10, and one girl could count to 100 with a little help.

On the last day, Matthew tore around the playground with a new friend. Javen wrote her name on the pavement with a piece of chalk. Keith printed his name perfectly.

It was time for their last getting-ready-for-kindergarten story, I Knew You Could: A Book for All the Stops in Your Life.

"Your next stop is going to be kindergarten," Kelly told them after she'd read the last page.

"Kindergarten!" the children echoed.

"And guess what?" she said, closing the book.

"What?" they asked.

"I think you're ready."

FAST FACTS: Learn more
For information about voluntary prekindergarten in Pinellas County, call (727) 548-1439. In Hillsborough, call (813) 229-2884.

[Last modified August 25, 2007, 00:00:36]

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