Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Youngest students get early start at school

McNair program gives kindergarteners a "jump start"

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Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Incoming kindergarteners to Ronald McNair Elementary School in Germantown enjoy a snack during a two-week introduction to school that wrapped up last week. From left, Audrey Graham, Elizabeth Stockton, Kaylee Dembroski and McKenzie Bishop.

The school year hasn't even started, but some Germantown kindergarteners already have the first-day jitters behind them.

The two-week kindergarten primer, called Jump Start, wrapped up last week at Ronald McNair Elementary School. The program was begun by teachers and administrators last summer to reduce the anxiety that many parents and students typically feel as the countdown begins to the first day of school.

"We know how to sit, we know how to raise our hands, we've made friends, we don't cry anymore," teacher Katie Runyon told the students on Friday, the last day of the program.

Less time tending to fearful children who cry or try to run away means more time for teachers and students to work on academic subjects, teacher Cheryl Dembroski said.

"It gives them a chance to warm up now so they can jump into the academic program as soon as the school year starts," she said.

Makayla Berton was one of the 19 graduates from the Jump Start program. She said she enjoyed the weeks spent preparing her and her classmates for the first official day of school on Tuesday.

"We played and read a book and then Miss Dembroski let us sit in her chair," she said, describing some of the activities on the last day of class.

Jump Start makes it easier for students to adjust to the sometimes intimidating presence of a teacher in their lives for the first time, said Eileen MacFarlane, McNair's principal. Dembroski said about one-third of the students in her class last year were also in her Jump Start classroom.

"A relationship has been built between teacher and students. That can only help," Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane said she noticed fewer distraught students on the first day of class. Emotionally vulnerable students followed the example set by those who participated in Jump Start and other pre-school programs that prepared them for life in the classroom, MacFarlane said.

"We generally have students upset and crying. Now there's an atmosphere of calm and they see everybody else is ok with this," she said.

This year's Jump Start class was held at Kingsview Middle School because of a roofing project at McNair. The program, which enrolled 19 students for 20 available positions this year, is open on a first come first serve basis. Teachers and administrators focus on encouraging disadvantaged children to participate.

The program also works on basic skills students need to survive their introduction to kindergarten. In the classroom, Runyon and Dembroski worked with students on an exercise in which they received popcorn, fruits and others treats after asking for them in the correct way.

"This is not just manners," Dembroski said. "It's a matter of developing oral language skills. Some, when they came into the program, were not speaking in complete sentences. For others, English is a second language."

The $5,000 annual cost for the program is funded by a mix of parental tuition, the Parent Teacher Association and corporate support.