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Pre-K, education's starting blocks

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Makel Harris and Estefany Ortega, both 4, picked up pairs of binoculars on Thursday and looked like they had giant, bulging eyes as they scanned over their pre-kindergarten, or pre-K, classroom at Huie Elementary School in Forest Park.

Shortly thereafter, Harris and Ortega put the binoculars down and joined their classmates for "Circle Time," where 19 youths sat around their teacher, Gloria Swift, and paraprofessional, Chiquitta Gaskin, and everyone sang songs, played the air guitar, and pretended to be balloons which were inflating and then deflating.

"We're very busy from the beginning of the day, till the end of the day," said Swift with a sigh of relief after getting the children to lie down for an hour-long nap before the end of the school day. "We do a lot of activities which are developmentally appropriate for their age group, and the kids seem to enjoy it."

Pre-K programs have existed in Georgia since 1993, when the state established a lottery to fund education initiatives. There were more than 75,000 children, all aged 4, who were enrolled in pre-K programs during the 2006-07 school year, according to the Bright from the Start: The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning web site.

During that school year, the lottery provided $309.6 million for the program, which is operated locally by private business and accredited public schools. Figures for the 2007-08 school year are not yet available.

In Clayton County, there are about 69 public schools and private businesses that provide state-funded pre-K programs, according to the Bright from the Start web site. Twenty-three of those locations are public schools, like Huie Elementary. Some of the public schools have more than one class, so the school system actually has 28 classes.

There are 20 students in each class this year, or 560 pre-K students in the Clayton system.

There, traditionally, are waiting lists of at least 20 students, wanting to get into a pre-K class at one of the county's public schools. The school system conducts a lottery in March to decide which children will get a slot in the program, said Donya Sartor, assistant coordinator of the district's early reading program, which works with pre-K classes.

The pre-K program is designed to teach children the basics, such as shapes and colors; how to identify letters, and how to develop initial social skills. In addition to having "Circle Time," the students participate in "Outdoor Time," art activities, and music activities.

"The earlier we can get them in a classroom, the sooner we can get them started academically," said Sartor.

"This year, we're having them eat lunch in the cafeteria, instead of eating in the classroom like we used to do," added Swift. "Now, they get to learn how to stand in a line, and how to make choices about what they want to eat."

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On the net:

Clayton County Public Schools: http://www.clayton.k12.ga.us/

Bright from the Start: http://decal.state.ga.us/