Altered prekindergarten registration believed smoother for parents

Ryan Anderson, The Daily Citizen, Dalton, Ga.
·5 min read

Mar. 31—With so much crucial brain development happening in the first years of a child's life, early education is important, and local parents hoping to help their children jumpstart their education registered for prekindergarten last week.

"Research shows brain development is really significant from birth to age 5, and we want to (minimize) those gaps when they get to kindergarten" through early childhood education like prekindergarten, said Caroline Woodason, a director of school support for Dalton Public Schools. "We have about 360 students in prekindergarten" currently, and "we provide transportation, which is a real benefit to our families."

Children "grasp so much in those early years socially, emotionally and cognitively," said Saira Laruy, who oversees Dalton Public Schools' summer program for rising prekindergartners, among other early childhood initiatives. "Their brains are like sponges" at that age.

Prekindergarten "focuses on social development of children as well as academics, (as) some of them have only been in the home, not around other kids," said Salena Weed, director of prekindergarten for Whitfield County Schools. "It's a great opportunity to learn through play and socialize."

"It's important for every child, I think, to get acquainted with other kids, and (my son) has only been around his brother, who is eight years older," said Amber Dempsey, who registered her son, Dradyn, for prekindergarten. To be around peers "helps with learning and social skills."

"So much more is expected out of" children academically in earlier grades than it once was, so starting school as soon as possible is crucial, said Shelby Cameron, who registered her daughter, Chloe, for prekindergarten. "They're doing math in first grade, now, that I know I wasn't doing" at that age.

Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools hosted prekindergarten registration Tuesday-Thursday of last week at the Mack Gaston Community Center in Dalton. Students must be age 4 by Sept. 1, 2021, to qualify, and prekindergarten placement in Georgia is made by lottery.

Dalton Public Schools has three prekindergarten classrooms at five of its six elementary schools, with two prekindergarten classrooms at the sixth school, but that still isn't enough space to accommodate all youth, Woodason said. That's why the system devised Little Cats, a weekly "mommy and me class where we teach parents as much as the kids, because parents are a child's first teacher."

There's also the summer transitions program, where rising prekindergartners learn how to share, follow a schedule and interact with one another in school, all "vital life skills," according to Laruy. "We have seen over time that early intervention is very helpful, and the sooner we expose children to a school environment, we're setting them up for success," not only academically, but socially and emotionally.

Those who don't draw into Dalton Public Schools or Whitfield County Schools prekindergarten through the lottery are placed on a wait list, Weed said. Those families can enroll their children in local daycares, many of which partner with the school systems and even mirror their daily and annual schedules and calendars.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning's Bright From the Start handles prekindergarten in the state, and more information, including a list of providers, can be found online at http://www.decal.ga.gov/prek/Default.aspx, Weed said. "In Georgia, most areas can only do about 60% of students (who want to be in prekindergarten), and in Whitfield County Schools, we're about at that state average."

"We can take about 330 students, (as) we have 10 elementary schools with prekindergarten space," she said. "Our biggest drawback is just not having enough space."

Whitfield County Schools' prekindergarten program began in 2003 with one class of 20 students; now, there are 16 classes, Weed said. "We've served over 3,600 students" since the advent of prekindergarten in the system and "made a huge impact."

When parents register, they ask for a specific school for their child, and "we provide transportation in-zone," Weed said. "If they're out of their zone, (families) have to provide transportation to school."

While registration was "extremely different for everyone this year" due to the COVID-19 pandemic, "it's been better and faster for parents," Weed said. "We're easily social distanced, parents can go around to stations to get everything they need, packets were online for them to fill out (in advance), we have copy machines to make copies, and we have notaries for notarizing paperwork."

"They could register their children, finalize everything, and talk over any social or emotional development issues," Weed said. "We're a one-stop shop."

Registration was held over three days, instead of two, she said. Additionally, families were divided alphabetically by last name and asked to register on their particular day, which eliminated crowding.

"This was more enjoyable than when I registered my son, when it was, wham, back to back, crazy," Cameron said. "I had time to fill out papers today, there was no rush, and everyone was really nice."

Dempsey concurred, calling the setup "great and very organized."

During the final step of registration, each child was able to take home a book to read and an activity book for enrichment.

"She loves to read," Cameron said of her daughter Chloe. "We read (together), and she's always right there with me."

"It's 'present day,' (so) you get both" a reading book and an activity book, Diane Mosley, a lead speech-language pathologist and assistive technology coordinator for Whitfield County Schools, told a delighted Chloe Cameron. "We have English books, Spanish books, and English-Spanish books."

Dalton Public Schools emphasizes bilingual language skills starting in prekindergarten, because "we see Spanish as an asset," Woodason said. "They will gain the English, but we don't want them to lose Spanish, because it's an advantage to be bilingual."

Registering her "third and last" child for prekindergarten was "kind of bittersweet" for Cameron, because "I'll lose my little sidekick during the week," she said. "It'll be tougher on me" than her.

Dradyn Dempsey is "excited to play with other kids, but he's a little bit of a momma's boy," his mother said with a laugh. "As long as they keep him occupied, he'll be fine."