By Olga Pena
Killeen Daily Herald
COPPERAS COVE – They are cute. They ask a lot of questions. Their energy is limitless. But how will they act in school?
Copperas Cove parents, teachers and school administrators will soon answer that question and many more as the complexities of taking in 3-year-old pre-kindergartners becomes a reality Monday morning.
For the first time in Copperas Cove Independent School District history, city schools will accept 3-year-old children who qualify for pre-kindergarten classes. That means active-duty military family members who are 3 years old on or before Sept. 1, 2006, can attend Cove schools full time.
Because House Bill 1 has changed pre-kindergarten eligibility to include active-duty military family members, CCISD officials felt opening campuses to 3-year-olds would lessen the impact of losing some students to the Killeen Independent School District.
The plan is working. As of noon Friday, 706 students were registered for pre-kindergarten, about 200 more than last year.
"I'm excited about getting 3-year-olds ready to go to school," said Gail Milligan, CCISD assistant superintendent of curriculum and student services. "I'm excited about the opportunity for teachers to work with them and get them ready for school and get them a head start for high-stake testing."
While CCISD officials are excited about providing early learning for the young students, some parents and daycare workers are concerned about the impact on the community.
Teachers must adjust
Adelia Hart is the director of First Step Child Care in Copperas Cove. Hart said teachers may have a difficult time adjusting to younger students.
"If the child has previous experience socially with other kids, to me it's fine," Hart said. "But 3-year-olds coming straight from home and never having been in a school environment ... I think some of those kids will be very immature. I know there will be a lot of crying and accidents (not getting to the toilet in time)."
Milligan explained that though a student being potty-trained is not one of the requirements for 3- or 4-year-old children who are enrolled, CCISD pre-kindergarten teachers have early childhood certification, which includes 3-year-olds. She added that each pre-kindergarten teacher will have aides.
CCISD Superintendent Dr. Rose Cameron said the training of pre-kindergarten teachers will be an ongoing process since the changes resulting from House Bill 1 came so close to the start of school.
"We were able to work some training in before school starts, but the bulk of the training will have to occur as we assess our needs. The potty training is something else that we will address once we get school started and assess our needs," Cameron said.
Disadvantaged come first
Besides concerns over the challenges of teaching younger students, some Copperas Cove parents are displeased about the district not having room for children not considered "at risk."
Current guidelines for pre-kindergarten eligibility include children who do not have English-speaking skills, are economically disadvantaged, are homeless and are active duty military dependents.
About two weeks ago, Christopher Lingo was the first to arrive to pre-kindergarten pre-registration for the district, intending to secure a spot for his 4-year-old son. That didn't happen.
"They told me they were accepting military first, then low income, then, if there is any room, then my kid can come," Lingo said. "I was willing to pay. It should be first-come, first-serve."
Milligan said that in the past two years, the district has had the luxury of providing a few seats for paying parents who have 4-year-olds who did not meet the pre-kindergarten criteria. As the district makes room for military dependent 3- and 4-year-olds this year, those luxury seats have been dramatically diminished.
Some are left out
At a board meeting Tuesday, CCISD trustees heard from another Cove resident who prepped his 4-year-old for pre-kindergarten this year, only to discover that there would be no room for his little learner.
Cameron apologized to the parent, but reminded him of the state's purpose for pre-kindergarten instruction. "Pre-kindergarten originally was set up for disadvantaged students," Cameron said. "I wish we could have told everybody (about new criteria) last year but we found out on May 26."
Cameron told the Herald that the added House Bill 1 criteria for military dependents makes many more children eligible for pre-kindergarten.
"In reviewing the state criteria for pre-kindergarten side-by-side with the criteria for admissions in grades kindergarten to 12th, it is easy to see that the focus is not on residency and age, but rather economic status and language comprehension – factors that indicate children may be at risk," said CCISD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bobby Ott.
Milligan said the district then has to focus on at risk children and can't shoulder the cost of instructing those that do not meet the criteria. "It costs about $7,500 to educate a child," Milligan said. "We can't possibly charge that type of tuition."
Plenty to go around
In recent weeks, district officials have also expressed awareness of the impact taking in 3-year-olds will have on area daycares and Headstart.
"We're concerned about that," Milligan said. "We are talking to area daycares about that. But a lot of our kids are coming from Fort Hood."
Hart said her daycare loses children to school every year, and this term is no different. She has informed her parents of the new pre-kindergarten criteria and is not worried about an economic jolt to the daycare.
"I don't worry about that," Hart said. "It doesn't affect me at all. We always lose some kids when school starts."
Sue Mayfield, director of Cove Christian School and Early Learning Center, agreed with Hart, stating there are plenty of children to go around. "Whatever we can do to help each individual child is what we're all here to do," Mayfield said.
Cameron said the district is not yet aware of what the impact on local daycares may be since pre-kindergarten students are coming from Killeen as well.
CCISD is also joining forces with Headstart as specified in the state's pre-kindergarten expansion grant requirements. The district will offer services to Headstart workers – an opportunity some Headstart teachers have already taken advantage of during the district's staff development programs held this week.
Milligan said the expansion grant also calls for having a district employee volunteer some hours of service at Headstart.
"It kind of hurts us (CCISD taking 3-year-olds) because we've done it for so long, but we're going to work together – whatever is best for the community," said Sue Reindl, Copperas Cove Headstart director.
A learning experience
At Tuesday's board meeting, Cameron said expanding pre-kindergarten services to younger children has presented many challenges, but the CCISD staff is rising to the occasion, she added.
Both Ott and Cameron communicated confidence Friday, predicting the community will benefit from the expansion.
Ott said serving 3-year-old children is consistent with the governor's early start initiative established four years ago. It was designed to improve early childhood pre-literacy skills through research-based assessment, curriculum and professional development.
"Anytime we can help give students a better start before they are required to begin taking those high stakes' tests in 3rd grade, then we are helping our community," Cameron said. "We are very excited about the response that we have received so far and we are looking forward to the start of school on Monday."
Contact Olga Peña at firstname.lastname@example.org
CCISD Pre-K Eligibility
n full day – 3-years-old on or before Sept. 1, 2006 and active duty military dependent
n half day – 3-years-old on or before Sept. 1, 2006, must meet one of the following: homeless, economically disadvantaged, unable to speak or comprehend English
n 4 years old on or before Sept. 1, 2006
n And one of the following: active duty military dependent, homeless, economically disadvantaged, unable to speak or comprehend English