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Pre-K program acclimates students to school

Games and sing-alongs prepare youngsters for kindergarten. The program targets children at risk of struggling in school.

[Times photo: Olie Stonerook]
Ann Tobin starts every class with a good morning song and dance.

By LOGAN NEILL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2001


Casy Gillespie sits cross-legged on the floor in front of one of his favorite games: a picture puzzle. The pieces, which are cut into large, colorful shapes, are designed with small handles and can be put in only one way. The 4-year-old's task is to look at the shape of a hole and, by trial and error, fit the correct piece.

It is a quiet game, one that enables Casy, who up until a few months ago had never set foot in a classroom, to work at his own pace, make his own decisions and, in the end, enjoy the satisfaction of its completion.

Games are just one of many activities that students in Ann Tobin's prekindergarten early intervention program get to do during their five-hour day with her. Before they leave for home, they will have participated in sing-alongs, danced to music and listened to stories, all of which will have made their day both informative and fun.

But what they also will have gained goes far toward making them better students in school, their teacher says.

"People think all we do is play all day long," says Tobin, who is in her eighth year teaching pre-K at Eastside. "But to them (the students), what we do here is their job."

Tobin considers the lessons more like on-the-job training for her 20 pupils who will begin their public school careers as kindergarteners next fall. By then, most of them will have the basic ability to recognize letters and numbers. But perhaps more important, Tobin says, they will each have the experience of having been in a classroom environment.

"It gives them a head start on knowing how to interact with other children, how to be independent and be responsible learners," Tobin says. "By the time they enter school, they have a good grasp of what's expected of them in the classroom."

The statewide program, started in 1990 to target economically disadvantaged children who are at risk of failure in school, serves 140 children in Hernando County.

Although the program is paid for by proceeds from the state lottery, parents are assessed a co-payment of between $4 and $24 each week, depending on family income. The county school system supports the program by providing space at six schools (Deltona, Eastside, Pine Grove, Floyd, Spring Hill and Westide elementaries, as well as Moton Early Intervention Center).

A former fifth-grade teacher at Eastside, Tobin has seen the program do remarkable things for children who might have faced a life of struggling in school.

Classroom activities are derived from a planned curriculum called High Scope, which emphasises creativity, social relation and manipulative exercises that encourage an active learning style. Through daily activities, the children develop problem-solving and interaction abilities vital to learning.

"They gain a confidence in themselves that they can learn as well as other children," Tobin said. "Half the battle in teaching is getting children to understand what is expected of them."

Eastside kindergarten teacher Jacki King, who has four of Tobin's former pupils in her class, agrees.

"I wish I had more of them," King said. "They come to school very prepared to work hard every day. A lot of that comes from having been in a learning environment. You don't have so many bad habits to break."

Tobin, the only nationally accredited early childhood expert in the county's pre-K program, said her success comes from years of trial and error in working with preschool children. With Joan Hendrix, a paraprofessional who has worked with Tobin since she started the program, Tobin has developed a classroom chemistry that emphasises teamwork and respect among children.

Parental and family involvement, Tobin said, is a key factor as well. But even well-meaning parents sometimes need a reminder of the importance of their own role in their child's education.

Sadly, Tobin said, the kind of one-on-one attention their children receive in her class might be the only such stimulation they receive during the day.

She recalls a question a young mother posed to her during a conference. "She asked me if her daughter knew her shapes yet," Tobin said. "The fact that she didn't know really astounded me. How was her daughter going to get an education if her own mother wasn't going to get involved in it?"

Though Tobin admits that budget constraints make it unlikely, she would like to see the prekindergarten early intervention program expanded. The Hernando program, which was allocated $611,000 this year, has seen a significant increase in funds for three years.

"We had 28 on the waiting list this year," she said. "My fear is that instead of growing, the program may actually lose some funding in the future. That would be a big loss to the children, especially those families who have no place else to go. We really can't afford to lose this."

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