For the 4-year-old, it was just fun cutting his modeling clay into pizzalike slices.
For the Cape Girardeau School District, this classroom setting is the first step in a new initiative to reach at-risk students as early as possible.
For three hours Thursday at Jefferson Elementary School, Darion and 12 other children played with blocks and other toys, practiced raising their hands and listening to their teacher, and learned where to store their backpacks and school supplies.
At one point, the children sat in a semicircle on a colorful rug. Teacher Amy Grammer rolled an orange ball to each child, after which she asked each of them their first names.
The Cape Girardeau School District kicked off its first day offering the preschool program at Jefferson and Blanchard elementary schools with a full roster of 60 students and a short waiting list.
"It is a wonderful opportunity to get children in school earlier," said Deena Ring, director of special services for the district. The goal, she said, is to help improve the academic skills of children before they get to kindergarten.
In the classroom at Jefferson, teacher Grammer said her goal is to get the children to learn some basic counting skills and to recognize their names. The curriculum includes learning letters, sounds, basic colors and shapes.
The program is open to 15 students in each of two morning sessions and 15 students in each of two afternoon sessions.
The classes have 4- and 5-year-olds from all five of the district's elementary school neighborhoods. While the program is available to children of all backgrounds, it is geared toward at-risk students. The prekindergarten children were among more than 4,000 students in pre-K through high school who showed up for the start of classes Thursday for the 2007-2008 school year, district officials said.
Ring and other school officials said they were thrilled with the demand for the pre-K classes.
Some families can't afford the cost of a private preschool, Ring said.
The district will charge families a sliding fee for preschool. The fee will be $2 a day for children who qualify for free lunches, $4 a day for children eligible for reduced-price lunches and $8 a day for all other children.
But that doesn't even begin to pay the cost. Fees are expected to generate less than $50,000 of the estimated $168,000 cost for the preschool program this first year, school officials said.
Grammer said she's encouraged by the interest of parents in the new program. Unlike other grades, the district doesn't provide bus transportation for prekindergarten students.
"They care enough to bring their children up here," she said of parents.
For the prekindergarten children, three hours can seem like a long time. As the morning class was winding to a close at Jefferson, one boy told the teacher that he wanted to go home. Others seemed ready to take a nap.
But Ring, who visited the two classrooms, said the children benefit from being in a classroom for that amount of time. "It gets them used to the whole school environment," she said.
Parents who picked up their children at the end of the morning session agreed. "I think it is a good idea to get them ready for kindergarten," Michaela Saffold said.
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