Bright eyes light up like an electric sign as little hands manipulate a touch-screen tablet.
Four four-year-olds, gathered around a table, play matching games on an iPad mini. Fifteen minutes later they listen to a story. After that they work on numbers and then letters, followed by a recess, nap and repeat.
“The key – and something that our teachers are good at – is giving them a variety of activities throughout the day to keep them engaged,” said Boyd Elementary School principal Anke Bracey about the district’s pre-K program.
Starting this school year, Boyd ISD expanded their pre-K program in a couple of ways. First, they opened it up to every four-year-old in the district. Previously, it was only for those who qualified for economic reasons or English as a second language (ESL) students. They also expanded class time from half a day to a full school day.
Most parents in the district have taken advantage of the program. Bracey estimated 75 percent of pre-school aged children in the district have enrolled. The district hired extra staff and now has four teachers and two aides to teach the 70 four-year-olds enrolled.
They had 25 kids last year. The program is at capacity, and there are several parents from outside the district who have put their little ones on a waiting list.
The pre-K grade has its own wing at the elementary school, complete with four classes and two activity rooms. The kids also have their own playground area and equipment outside.
Debbie Moyers has been teaching for 30 years, including the last 15 years as a kindergarten teacher. Even though this is her fist year teaching pre-K, she reaches her students the same way.
“It’s like it is with any kid, you have to build a relationship,” Moyers said. “Let them know they are valued and safe and they will learn. They don’t care how much you know, but how much you care.”
Kids today are expected to know more than ever. Moyers said pre-K is what kindergarten was about 10 years ago, and what first grade was 10 years before that.
“This is a soft entry to their career in education,” Moyers said. “They learn how to take instruction, work with others in groups. This lays a foundation.
“Education and the world are changing. And the kids are a lot more receptive to education than you think.”
“This really improves their readiness for kindergarten,” Bracey said. “It’s great for their social development. It also helps identify several learning disabilities and get them the help they need earlier.”
They also start getting used to hands-on learning with technology. When Boyd ISD adopted a one-to-one technology program this year, pre-K students were included.
“It’s amazing, especially to an old gray mare like me,” Moyers said. “The kids are not afraid of it. They get immediate feedback and response when they use it.”
Chico ISD also opened their pre-K program to all students in the district this year. They were full-day last year, but the program, like Boyd’s, was only open to those who qualified.
“We want all four-year-olds to have that foundation,” said Chico Elementary School principal Karen Decker. “You can tell a huge difference in kids in kindergarten that went to pre-school.”
And administrators feel that foundation doesn’t just help in kindergarten and first grade, but will help those children throughout their all their years in the education system, including the battery of standardized tests facing them in the future.
“It’s invaluable to get kids off on the right foot,” said Chico superintendent Mike Jones. “It’s going to pay dividends down the road.”
Despite all the advances in education, with students learning more and more at an earlier age, one element remains the same.
“It’s kind of a song and dance,” Moyers said. “You have to be a little goofy. You have to be willing to read a silly story. You need one foot in childhood.”