Port-Saukville officials tout benefits of preparing 4-year-olds for kindergarten
There was a time when tears were common on the first day of kindergarten classes in the Port Washington-Saukville School District when children were separated from their parents for the first time.
“It used to be kids would show up for the first day of kindergarten scared to death, just weeping,” Dunwiddie Elementary School Principal Diane Johnson said. “Now it’s just the parents who are weeping. Kids are coming to school prepared and ready to learn.”
The change, Johnson said, illustrates how the district’s 4-year-old preschool program, which began its sixth year this month, has revolutionized education.
“Our kindergarten teachers say over and over again how much their jobs have changed because of our 4-year-old preschool,” said Johnson, who oversees the program. “They can focus much more on academics starting from the first day of kindergarten now because concepts like sharing and getting along with others have been taught in preschool.”
The Port-Saukville School District is among the vast majority of Wisconsin school systems that offer 4-year-old programs, yet there are districts in Ozaukee County that don’t. One of them is the Grafton School District, which is now considering such a program because administrators believe it is at a competitive disadvantage without classes for 4-year-olds.
The initial cost of starting a 4-year-old program and classroom space are the challenges, ones that the Port-Saukville District grappled with for more than two years before launching the program in 2008.
A planning committee comprised of school officials, administrators and day care center operators addressed those challenges with a community-based program. The program, unique by local standards because it does not use school district facilities, solved the problems of not having adequate classroom space, reduced costs and streamlined transportation and after-school child care.
Four-year-old preschool is a public school program overseen by district administrators, but children go to classes at one of five privately owned sites. In Port Washington, those sites are Port Catholic School’s St. Mary’s Campus, Port Preschool and Community Learning Center, which was added after the first year of the program because of enrollment.
In Saukville, the schools for 4-year-olds are the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA and Saukville Preschool.
Administrators involved in planning the program knew there was a demand for the 4-year-old preschool, but they didn’t realize how much of a demand, Supt. Michael Weber said.
“We thought that first year we might have 75 students and we ended up with 144, and it just keeps growing,” he said.
The second year of the program, enrollment peaked at 170 students. This year’s enrollment of 160 students suggests that roughly 80% of kindergartners attended preschool.
“This is still a new program, and for it to be as stable as it is after only six years is remarkable,” Weber said. “It usually takes a lot of time for a program to become a fixture.”
But the value of the program is reflected not only in its enrollment, but in the impact it has had on children.
“Our kindergarten teachers constantly talk about how students who were in preschool know how to follow the rules and how to get along with each other and are quick to become involved in learning,” Weber said. “Children who were not in preschool sometimes struggle.”
Rather than academic, the focus in preschool is on teaching socialization, Johnson said.
“The nice thing is that the program is play-based,” Johnson said. “Children still have the opportunity to play while learning important social skills.”
Preschool students are in school for three hours and 10 minutes a day, four days a week, either in the morning or afternoon.
They are taught by state-certified teachers hired by the individual sites. Each teacher is assisted by a paraprofessional.
Preschool is voluntary and, because it is a public school program, there is no tuition, although parents are charged a supply fee that ranges from $22 to $26, Johnson said.
“Prior to our preschool program, some parents didn’t have the financial wherewithal to provide this sort of education for their children,” Weber said. “Now all children in the district have the opportunity to get that valuable head start.”
Image Information: STUDENTS ENROLLED IN the Port Washington-Saukville School District 4-year-old preschool classes at Port Catholic School’s St. Mary’s Campus played a color-matching game with paraprofessional Patti Cox last week. The students were (from left) Oliver Bannon, Carter Bannon, Ellis Grove and Ethan Seaman. Port Catholic is one of five private schools and day care centers that host public preschool classes. Photo by Bill Schanen IV