Helping children learn and succeed

Preschool: A Howard County program strives to give kids an academic head start.


September 22, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jose Luis Diaz is elated that his daughter, Stephanie, is enrolled in the prekindergarten program at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.

"I've heard that a child's brain should be stimulated when they are young, and I want my child to have a better future," he said through interpreter Rosa Pope, a community liaison for Howard County's English for Speakers of Other Languages department. "She's very motivated to learn. From Day One, she comes home excited and tells about teacher and what they did."

For the past seven years, the county's prekindergarten programs have helped children prepare for kindergarten. Evaluations show that pupils who participate in the program score at about the same level as all other second-graders taking the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national norm-referenced exam, said Tracy Jones, coordinator of early childhood programs for the county.

"Our goal is to prepare children to be successful for school," said Jones.

There are "tons of factors" that might make a child eligible for the county's preschool programs, said Jones, including:

Whether a pupil comes from a home whose household income makes the child eligible for free or reduced-priced school lunches.

Whether a pupil's native language is other than English.

Whether a child was born underweight.

The county's preschool programs operate at Bryant Woods, Deep Run, Guilford, Laurel Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Swansfield and Talbott Springs elementary schools, and Cradlerock, a school for prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Programs are offered in morning or afternoon sessions - depending on the availability of pupil transportation. Children can be enrolled if they will be 4 years old by Sept. 30.

Prekindergarten classes are staffed at a ratio of 20 pupils to two instructors, with one certified teacher and one instructional assistant in the class.

Pupils are instructed in language arts, mathematics, personal and social development, physical development and health education, science, social studies and the arts.

`Family atmosphere'

At Phelps Luck, Jodi Sacki's enthusiasm is infectious as she teaches her prekindergarten pupils.

"I want them to feel good about school so that they can learn the skills that they need to be successful in school and in life," she said, adding that her pupils have shown an eagerness to learn.

Sacki, who has been teaching for 15 years, said she strives for a "family atmosphere" in her classroom, where parents and pupils feel welcome.

"If parents feel good about a school, and their children can see that they value education, then they will value it, too," she said.

Her goals include helping children "to feel great about school; to instilling positive social skills; and helping them learn to make choices," she said.

"It's about empowerment," she added. "I try to help them see themselves as leaders."

And when things become difficult, Sacki encourages her pupils to think creatively.

"I recently heard a student say, `I'm just going to try this a different way,'" Sacki said. "That's the teachable moment."

How does a parent know if his or her child is ready for preschool?

Sacki said behavior might offer insight.

"If there was a lot of crying, or if the children were antsy, then I would know that there was a problem," she said.

Academic goals

As for specific academic goals, Sacki said they include prereading skills, including how to properly hold a book and knowing that reading goes left to right; beginning writing tips; listening for understanding; and speaking clearly.

"We also learn about time, the days of the week and life skills," she said.

At Guilford, Colleen Morris said an evaluation of former pupils showed that 30 percent knew at least the first 50 "sight words" kindergartners learn for reading.

She added that all of the pupils knew their letters, and most of them knew their letter sounds.

"This is just a great program," said Morris, a 15-year teaching veteran.

Morris uses math and reading resource teachers to help her pupils.

"It's good because the teachers can help them work on their individual needs," she said.

For more information, call the public information office of the Howard County school system at 410-313-6682.

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