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Internal report shows progress for district's youngest students

Linda Holmes comforts Jamar Kirkland, 2, who has a little trouble going down for his midmorning nap Thursday at the James J. Davis Early Childhood Learning Center.
Linda Holmes comforts Jamar Kirkland, 2, who has a little trouble going down for his midmorning nap Thursday at the James J. Davis Early Childhood Learning Center. BOB SOFALY | The Beaufort Gazett

Some of the 4-year-olds who enter pre-kindergarten classes at the James J. Davis Early Childhood Center can't recite the alphabet or count past three.

Some don't know to turn the pages of a book.

Others never learned to sit quietly and pay attention in a social setting.

"With some, they don't know their name if I ask," said Sholanda Freeman, a pre-kindergarten teacher at the center.

But Freeman said students make fast progress once they start getting daily instruction in basic math and language skills through the Beaufort County School District's pre-kindergarten programs. In fact, some of her most advanced children leave the classroom reading, she said.

"They need that foundation," Freeman said. "It's sad to say, but a lot of them are not getting it at home."

The district offers pre-kindergarten in 17 schools to 4-year-olds who meet state criteria for students at risk of academic failure. For years, the district had a long waiting list for such programs, but last year switched from full-day to half-day programs at several schools so more students could be served.

As the program has grown, the district has stepped up efforts to measure its effectiveness. It standardized the curriculum across the county two years ago and adopted an assessment to measure each student's progress.

Data for the first two of what will be a five-year study were presented to the Board of Education earlier this month.

Preliminary results are promising, said Kay Newsome, the district's director of readiness.

Upon entering the program in fall 2009, 92 percent of students tested at the lowest two of four skill levels. Newsome said some 4-year-olds entered with the cognitive abilities of a 2- or 3-year-old.

By the time those students finished the program in spring 2010, 78 percent had mastered the standards for a pre-kindergarten student and achieved the highest skill level. Only 2 percent remained at beginning levels, according to district data.

Newsome noted the district only had complete data for 73 percent of the students because many entered the program late or switched schools during the year. The district reported data only for students that were evaluated three times -- in the fall, winter and spring.

EARLIER PREPARATION

In addition to bolstering its programs for 4-year-olds, the district is working with other organizations to provide a foundation for children even younger. For instance, the federally funded Head Start program, which uses space at four public schools for preschool programs, serves some students who are only weeks old.

The largest such partnership is at the Davis center.

Last year, the district consolidated Davis and Whale Branch elementary schools. The Davis building was renovated and now is an early learning center that serves all pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students in the northernmost part of the county. Elementary students in other grades moved to Whale Branch.

That move allowed Head Start to serve more than 100 students in the Davis building this year -- four classes of 3-year-olds and nearly 50 children between 6 weeks and 2 years old.

"It's awesome," said Don Doggett, the principal of the Davis Center. "It's the best thing since sliced bread."

Head Start adopted the same curriculum the school district uses for its early-childhood programs, which means children are learning consistent standards as they move from preschool into district programs.

Doggett said housing both programs in the same building also gives teachers an opportunity to talk to each other and share strategies.

Julia Burnes, Head Start manager for the Davis site, said the youngest children work to develop the skills they'll be expected to master by pre-kindergarten.

Even infants are learning, Burnes said. Their classrooms are equipped not only with wooden cribs, but soft cushions for them to crawl over and around as they develop motor skills.

Maresha Brown's 3-year-old son, Carter, is a student in the Head Start program. When he started, she said he spoke in broken phrases and had trouble communicating.

"Now we're talking in full sentences," she said. "With his enunciation of different words and his recognition of letters and colors, he's a totally different kid."

PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT

Burnes said the Davis building is becoming a "one-stop shop" that is convenient for parents who have children in both Head Start and school district programs.

Both work to involve parents.

The building houses a resource center filled with books and brochures on parenting, as well as a community room for adult education and parenting classes. Offices for a program that helps teenage mothers are also at the school.

Brown said Carter's teacher tells her what letter, number or color he's studying and shows her how to point out examples at home. She said she has learned to point out the color of her son's clothes or the fruit he's eating.

"We'll be at the grocery store and he'll say, 'Mommy, that's an apple. That's red,'" she said.

Newsome is optimistic these efforts -- as well as those by organizations such as First Steps, Together for Beaufort County and the S.C. Department for Health and Environmental Control -- soon will pay off in the form of more children who are prepared to start kindergarten.

"I can't wait to see where these children are even at grade 3," she said.

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