To the untrained eye, Paula Baum’s pre-kindergarten class at Mark Twain Elementary School can look like a chaotic swirl of glue and glitter, building blocks, books and paint. But that’s not what Baum sees. After 13 years in the pre-kindergarten classroom, she knows what to look for.
She sees children making friends, learning routines, remembering rules, trying new things.
“We work on language skills, math, social studies. We work on getting along together. We do art. We have a good time. We focus on the whole child, and we make it fun,” Baum said. “Right now, these kids can barely hold a pencil. By the end of the year, they will be writing their names.”
To enroll, children must be 4 years old by the end of September. The goal, said Valerie Dockery, grants and special projects coordinator for the Carson City School District, is to prepare them for school and to “create a love of learning.”
And the tests show it’s happening.
Last year, the state set a goal to have 80 percent of students enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs show improvement in vocabulary over the year. In Carson City, 92.2 percent of the students improved, making an average gain of 16.5 points. The statewide goal was to gain eight points.
“Our actual results were much higher,” Dockery said. “We doubled what the state set as a gain.”
In expressive comprehension, 97.35 percent of the Carson City School District pre-kindergartners improved, surpassing the state’s goal of 90 percent.
Dockery said a study from 2008 to 2013 of a group of students enrolled in pre-kindergarten compared to a group who did not attend the class, showed that students who were enrolled in pre-k scored higher on Nevada standardized tests than the other group.
“The students achieved significant learning gains while in preschool,” Dockery said.
While the program has proven to be effective, particularly among English language learners and children living in low-income homes, there’s one significant problem: Availability.
With some funding from the state’s distributive school account and funds allotted from the Legislature last year, the district has 10 pre-kindergarten classes — four at Mark Twain, four at Empire Elementary and two at Bordewich-Bray elementary schools.
“We have to turn a lot of kids away every year,” Dockery said. “We have lots of requests for pre-k, but we just don’t have the resources.”
She said the district is looking for additional sources of funding from grants and foundations, as is the state department of education.
“We are trying to be creative,” she said.
School board trustee Ron Swirczek is hoping to get even more creative. During a school board meeting last week, he urged officials to look to the strategic plan, which calls for developing partnerships in the community, to find ways to expand the program.
“Our kids are too valuable to let them go by saying we may get funding from the state or whatever,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people that can bring this together and make something happen.”
As part of the program, Dockery said, parents must also commit to being involved. They have showed successes as well, with 95.2 percent reporting more time spent with their children, and 95.2 percent showing an increase in time spent reading with their children.
“We know a child’s best teacher is the parents,” Dockery said. “We want to get everyone on board before the child even gets to school.”
As far as the children know, they’re just having fun.
“I like pre-kindergarten because I get to play,” said Sarah Payan, 4.
And that’s how Baum likes it. She uses a puppet, Curiosity the Cat, to introduce new concepts and themes each day, allowing the children to learn at their own pace.
“They have all year,” Baum said. “They’ll be so independent by the time they leave.”