- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Children pour into the classroom, backpacks bouncing off the backs of their knees.

Most of them are 4 years old, some even younger. Teacher Lory Rehne watches and waits, as she’s done for more years than she can remember.

“I lost count,” she says.

But something is different this morning. Rehne is nervous.

The students don’t see it. They don’t know the change starting today, with them.



They’ll be here all day.

“At first, I was like, ‘Oh my,’ ” says Rehne, remembering the day she was told Booth Elementary School would participate in the state’s experiment with full-day pre-kindergarten, meaning her children would no longer be split in two half-day shifts.

The students - many of them never separated from their parents - would be here for 25 hours a week instead of the usual 10, starting today.

“They’re going to be burnt out,” worries Rehne, who’s been teaching pre-kindergarten in Washoe County public schools since the state started funding preschool in 2002.

Not much has changed in the past dozen years. It’s been half days and flat funding, forcing Nevada school districts to fight over $3.3 million in grants each year to reach only 1,400 students in a few schools.

That’s just 1.5 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.

But that’s changing. Nevada pre-school funding is tripling this year, reflecting a trend taking shape in American public education: Preschool is shedding its prefix, quickly becoming just another part of “school.”

Nationwide, more than a quarter of 4-year-olds are now in state-funded preschool programs, according to a report released this spring by the U.S. Department of Education, tracking states’ voluntary shift. From 2003 to 2013, states increased their investment in preschool by more than 200 percent. The increase continued last year as 28 states put $1 billion more into early education.

The federal government also has a program for poor families, Head Start, which extends the reach of publicly funded preschools to 42 percent of the country’s 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

America’s K-12 system is being redefined as pre-K-12, especially in urban schools struggling with poor and minority students coming to kindergarten years behind in abilities.

“Some of my children arrive not knowing how to hold a book,” says Rehne, providing one example.

‘THE DIFFERENCE’

Rehne has taught preschool at Booth for five years. She knows the school.

A full 100 percent of Booth students live in poverty and nearly half are new to speaking English. The picture is similar at Nevada’s few public schools offering preschool. They’re all “at-risk schools” challenged by students’ disadvantaged backgrounds.

Like five other states with small or no preschool programs, Nevada is being urged forward by the federal government through a four-year Preschool Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Nevada’s share: $6.4 million this initial year of 2015-16.

The grant funded full-day classes this fall at Washoe County School District’s O’Brien Middle School, Sparks High School and Booth, Elmcrest and Lincoln Park elementary schools. The district has preschools at 21 sites across the county, serving about 650 students through mostly half-day programs. Another 700 students are on wait lists, reports the district.

Another Washoe school, Mariposa Academy, will start offering preschool on Monday using state funding. All students attending the publicly funded charter school live in poverty and two-thirds are learning to speak English.

“Obviously with that, they’re starting behind,” says Principal Chris McBride, calling preschool “essential to the school’s success. Students will start kindergarten closer to where they should instead of two to three years behind.”

PROVEN ADVANTAGES

McBride isn’t just assuming the benefits of preschool. Nevada educators and families already know it.

For a dozen years, the state has been tracking preschool students. And these students are progressing quicker than their peers, said Anna Severens, director of Early Childhood Education for the Nevada Department of Education. The findings reaffirm national research showing the cost savings of investing early in preschool instead of remediation later to catch students up.

The state also looks at standardized tests, which don’t start until third grade in Nevada. Officials found students who participated in public preschool had a 4 percent higher passage rate in math and English language arts than their peers, according to state reports.

“It’s not leaps-and-bounds miracles, but the difference is there,” says Terry Randolph, preschool program coordinator for Washoe public schools.

And these accomplishments have been made in half-day classes. Rehne is eager to see what she can do with the same group of students all day.

PLAYING TO LEARN

“A full day of school will allow more depth,” says Rehne as she catches a student picking his nose.

“We need to use a tissue, not our finger,” she tells the boy. “Now, go wash your hands.”

She tells students the same message numerous times a day: Wash your hands. Her top priority has always been teaching students the basic social skills and manners, making sure they can “solve their own problems.” Having students for half days didn’t allow for much else.

“When do you read them a book?” says Randolph, who was a preschool teacher and is well aware of the struggle to reach the state’s preschool standards.

Yes, Nevada public preschools have defined academic standards - 53 pages’ worth.

Teachers must also have an extra credential in early childhood education on top of their teaching license, which can make them hard to find.

Nevada’s preschool standards touch on every subject from math to science, language, social studies, behavioral skills, creative expression and physical development. For each area, there’s a list of skills that students are expected to possess in preparation for kindergarten.

-Count to 10.

-Identify circles, triangles and squares.

-Know the letters of your name.

-Properly hold a book and know how to turn the pages.

-Complete simple tasks in a group.

-Express needs or wants.

-Show awareness for others’ feelings.

And that’s only naming a few.

Rehne knows she’ll need to be creative to keep students content and learning five hours a day to meet these standards.

“We’re going to play to learn,” she says after reading a book to students and setting them free in the classroom.

Some students play educational games on iPads. Others paint at easels while a small group goes to the miniature kitchen and pretends to prepare food.

A 4-year-old girl takes a toy dog named Tobey from the shelf and uses oversized tweezers to feed him plastic bones.

“I’m cute like Tobey,” says the girl, wearing a blue dress with white stripes. A silk red flower nests in her black hair.

“She doesn’t know it, but she’s developing fine motor skills for writing,” says Rehne, who then scans over the room. “They’re playing to learn.”

A FAMILY RESPONSIBILITY?

Tina Springmeyer realizes the push for more preschool - and full-day classes - may be controversial for the public school system.

“There will always be people who think pre-K is a family responsibility,” acknowledges Springmeyer, director of child and family services for Washoe public schools and coordinator of Nevada’s Pre-K Standards Program.

But Sherri Cooper isn’t complaining. Her son Maxwell is in preschool at Booth, coming to school for the first full day with a perfect part in his blond hair.

“I think preschool really helps,” says Cooper, whose older son was here last year for half-days and learned to write his name. She’s eager to see what full-day classes will do for Maxwell.

Cooper knows she’s fortunate to have any preschool at no charge. Nevada isn’t like Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia or Wisconsin, providing public preschool to a majority of their 4-year-olds.

Nevada has been slow to join the movement, falling among a dozen other states with public preschool programs reaching 2 percent or fewer 4-year-olds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Springmeyer would like to see preschool offered at every public school, same as kindergarten, which is also an optional grade for Nevada students. State lawmakers have gradually grown to see kindergarten as a necessity, making the unprecedented shift this spring of funding full-day classes for every Nevada child in public school.

The challenges facing preschool expansion are the same as kindergarten before it: funding and classroom space.

Booth’s transition to full-day preschool required another classroom because all 30 students are present at the same time instead of split.

It’s now been three weeks since Rehne’s first nervous full-day on Aug. 20, and Booth hasn’t found another licensed preschool teacher for the second classroom of students. Principal Yuen Fong has hired a long-term substitute until a teacher is hired.

Rehne is relieved to say her fears weren’t realized. The students are adapting well to five hours of school a day.

That’s not to say the first day wasn’t an endurance test, especially by 2:30 p.m. when all the students gathered on the carpet to be dismissed.

“Who’s tired?” Rehne asks the students. “Who wants to go home and take a nap?”

All hands go up, except for the boy consumed by tears, crying for his dad.

___

Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com

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