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U46 pre-schoolers learn early to help them later

Teachers students pre-school special educaticlassroom sing 'Open Shut Them' preparatifor snack time Wednesday Independence School Bartlett. | Dave Shields~For Sun-Times

Teachers and students in a pre-school special education classroom sing "Open Shut Them" in preparation for snack time Wednesday at Independence School in Bartlett. | Dave Shields~For Sun-Times Media

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Give Me Five!

Here are five things you can do to help get kids ready for kindergarten in U46:

Talk: Tell your child a story. Sing your child a song. Talk about your child’s day.

Play: Pretend with your child. Be silly with your child. Build with your child.

Read: Read books to your child. Re-read books your child loves. Point out letters in your child’s world.

Do: Let your child touch, taste and smell new things. Explore the community and library together with your child. Count things with your child.

Register: Register your child for kindergarten.

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Updated: December 19, 2011 8:13AM

BARTLETT — In Jill Gowitzer’s preschool classroom Wednesday at the Independence Center for Early Learning, Demetrius Jacks popped the pink Play-Doh out if its tub. The 4-year-old carefully chose a handful of Mr. Potato Head-like plastic pieces scattered on a table and pushed them into the ball of dough.

Finished, he announced, “I made an alien. I made it with Play-Doh. It was so smooth! I put a face on it and a hat.”

Preschoolers in Elgin School District U46 all get at least 50 minutes of play every day, according to Julie Kallenbach, the district’s director of Early Learners Initiatives.

That allows students to put together the skills they’re learning with the things they’re interested in, she said. Asking the students what they’re doing and making and why, she said, pushes them to put their thoughts into words, into explanations, and to develop their language skills.

That’s why play is one of the five expectations U46 schools have of students entering kindergarten — a message called “Give Me Five!” that community members should start seeing this spring.

That’s according to the Elgin school district’s Early Childhood Education Project Charter, presented Monday at the U46 Board of Education meeting.

“Our ultimate purpose is to build a foundation for college and workplace success,” Kallenbach said.

To help build that foundation, U46 has set a target of having 98 percent of its first-graders reading at their grade level in the next three years, according to its Destination 2015 accountability plan. About 66 percent were reading at that level in this spring’s standardized testing.

Parents included

To get them there, U46 formed an Early Childhood Education Charter Project Committee to come up with expectations for students formally starting school in kindergarten. It’s the district’s second charter project. The first, for a Spanish bilingual program, took effect this year.

The “Give me Five!” expectations are to Talk, Play, Read and Do with preschool-age children, then Register them for kindergarten well before the first day of school, according to the charter.

“Give me Five!” is aimed at three groups — parents, the community and school staff, Kallenbach said. Parents are included not because they don’t care about education or preparing their children for school, she said, but because of “a lack of knowledge for what we expect.”

Only one-third of kindergartners now in U46 schools attended preschool in the district, Kallenbach said. So a common message like “Give Me Five!” gives parents and community partners, such as private preschool and daycare programs, a better idea what they should do to get kids ready for school, she said.

They’re things preschool staff already are doing and things kindergarten teachers expect students to have done.

In Michelle Wass’s dual-language preschool classroom Wednesday at Independence, for example, the first-year teacher encouraged her students, “Mezcla!” — Spanish for “Mix!”

All were sitting at two tables in the classroom, gleefully shaking baby food jars of heavy cream until they became butter. A few plunged their fingers into the mix before Wass could spread it onto bread for them. The rest would go home with the students.

Not only were students doing something new, but, Kallenbach said, “When they go home, their parents already are clued in to what they did during the day. They can ask, ‘How did you make the butter?’”

Delivering message

U46 already has met with some of private preschools and daycare centers, the Elgin YWCA, Gail Borden Public Library and the Grand Victoria Foundation, Kallenbach said.

The district plans to meet again with community partners in January to discuss delivering the “Give Me Five!” message to parents of infants, toddlers and preschool-age children who do not attend any program, she said. The district also will further identify benchmarks for incoming kindergartners in language development, social-emotional development, letter identification, writing concepts and math.

One daycare provider Traci O’Neal Ellis met with only expected children to know 10 letters of the alphabet, the U46 board member said. But U46 wants students to know 52 — all the letters of the English alphabet in both lower and upper case, she said.

Most students in Illinois actually come to kindergarten able to recognize 40 letters, Kallenbach said. But, she added, just recognizing letters and numbers should not be emphasized over oral language and other skills.

In Stephanie Hopkins’ classroom Wednesday at Independence, 3-year-old Jon Thompson was well on his way to learning his letters.

“Alligator!” Jon said.

He was holding a spiral-bound book, the letters “a” and “A” and the word “alligator” written across its first page, along with a picture of the reptile.

Hopkins had made the book to accompany a children’s song. She brought up a video she’d also made, accompanying the song in sign language, on the interactive whiteboard in her classroom at the Independence Center for Early Learning in Bartlett. Her students are deaf or hard of hearing.

“This is his favorite thing,” she said.

Jon signed and sang along, learning his letters, pairing words and pictures, as his teacher flipped through the pages.

Down the hall in Gowitzer’s preschool classroom, Demetrius had one more thought about Play-Doh. It was a thought important enough to find the right words, to put them into an explanation.

“Don’t eat it. It makes you sick.”

Correspondent Janelle Walker contributed to this story.

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