DADE CITY — Brenda Roberts sits among a sea of prekindergartners on her classroom floor, getting ready to dismiss the children at the end of the day.
The ticket to the door" Rhyming words, defined correctly by the 4- and 5-year-olds as “words that sound alike."
“I don't want to hear 'cat in the hat,'" Roberts tells the group. “You should be beyond 'cat in the hat.'"
Kimberly struggles to find a rhyme, but others barely can wait for the chance to share.
“Wall, hall!" Ruth offers, claiming a sparkling sticker and words of praise as she heads to the door.
“Car, star!" Roberto proclaims, rising to depart.
A school aide pops in to urge Roberts to speed the process. The bus is leaving, the aide says, putting extra emphasis on the word “leaving."
“I'm just trying to get it all in," Roberts responds calmly, though she quickly collects rhymes from the two remaining bus riders and sends them on their way.
A moment unused is a moment wasted, the 32-year veteran of Rodney B. Cox Elementary School's prekindergarten program explains — especially with these children, many of whom haven't seen the inside of a classroom before starting the program in the fall. “It's all about giving them that head start."
Pre-k class added
Students entering Cox as kindergartners certainly can use the boost.
Cox serves primarily low-income minority students, a large percentage of whom don't speak English at home. About half of the children who started kindergarten there in 2007 could not consistently demonstrate the skills considered necessary to be ready for school by the 30th day of classes.
Those skills include such things as letter naming and initial sound recognition.
The school regularly has offered four pre-k classes of 18 children each, with no problem filling those. Each year, there's been a long waiting list to get in.
It's those kids on the waiting list that school and district leaders are targeting as one of many measures designed to help Cox meet federally mandated, state-established annual achievement goals that have eluded the school since they took effect five years ago. Cox, which received a D grade from the state last year, faces “restructuring" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act if the students don't make what's known as “adequate yearly progress" this spring and into the future.
Starting this month, Cox will add another prekindergarten classroom, funded by federal grant for low-income students (Title I) and Florida's voluntary pre-k program. The idea is to get even more children on the path to academic success earlier, so by the time they take the FCAT they'll be better prepared.
“We want to make sure we meet the needs of all children," district pre-k supervisor Sandy Show said during one of her visits to Cox. “With this new classroom we're opening up, we want to look at what population we have missed."
Pre-k skills invaluable
Cox kindergarten teachers say they “absolutely, without a doubt" can tell the difference between the students who have gone through the program and those who haven't.
“They come with social skills," notes Wendy Kenny, who's in her fourth year teaching kindergarten. “They are able to use a pencil, write their name."
They're among those the state would classify as “ready."
What about those who are coming to school for the first time"
“Some of them — most of them, I would say — come here with no skills at all. They don't know what a school is," says Elena Rodriguez, one of Cox's four pre-k teachers.
They often have limited vocabulary, weak pronunciation, poor listening skills. Rodriguez recalled one boy who would “knock everything down" when he didn't get his way. After four months, while he wouldn't sit still very long, he would use words to express himself and react in a more controlled way.
“I just love it. You can see how they change," she says.
You see it in simple ways, like how the children learn to say “Yes, ma'am" instead of “Yeah" or a grunt. And in the increasingly precise way they spell and write their once-scribbled names.
Or in the more complex ways, such as their growing ability to communicate in English, to distinguish different shapes and to complete basic computations. Take Steven, for instance, who holds up seven fingers and doesn't just count them, but explains how five on one hand plus two on the other equals seven.
He grins broadly at his pronouncement and wanders off to play with blocks.
“They are learning," Roberts says, as she helps the children sweep her classroom's housekeeping area before sitting down to a lunch of broccoli and macaroni and cheese.
Caring teacher model
Much of the success has to do with the teachers. Show, the district supervisor, heaps praise upon Roberts, saying she knows that the longtime educator does things right: No kill and drill, fitting lessons into routine activities, plenty of age-appropriate instruction and lots of caring.
As she rates each teacher using a nationally accepted early childhood education environment scale, Show says she has no doubt that Roberts — who serves as a mentor for other teachers — will come out aces.
That's evident in Roberts' classroom, where the children clamor for her attention and get it with a smile.
Hector approaches carrying a peg board where he's fashioned the letter E. He proudly holds it up for Roberts to see.
She offers him praise, and more. What sound does E make, she asks, kicking off an impromptu lesson. Whose name in the class starts with E" After a few more questions comes more encouragement.
“Thank you, Hector, for making that for me," Roberts says. “I love that E."
No sooner does she turn away than Ruth appears, smacking rhythm sticks together, seeking her moment with the teacher.
“What sound are you making"" Roberts, ever smiling, asks. If the noise irritates her, you can't tell.
“Choo-choo train," Ruth responds.
Roberts starts dancing. “You make that sound, girl," she says, making chugging sounds as Ruth happily keeps the beat.
This is no act. Each child gets the same enthusiastic response, support mixed with interest and questions to keep him or her thinking. The only rest Roberts gets comes at nap time and after the kids go home.
“I want to be cheerful for them," she says during a brief calm moment. “My motto is, treat them the way I would want someone to treat my child."
Having started as a parent with the program, she knows what that means.
“I see this program as very, very important. I can't stress that enough. I really feel like it's not only for just the child but for the family," says Roberts, who tries to keep in touch with parents no less than weekly. We support them in creating goals for the children … and goals for themselves as a family. ... It is a head start for the children."
A lot riding on FCAT
Expanding the pre-k program is but one way that Cox hopes to improve its academic offerings.
A restructuring committee also has begun researching several other possibilities for the school, such as finding better ways to get families involved, seeking more business sponsors for Cox, and visiting similar schools that have seen better results for ideas.
The committee has met three times already, and hopes to have its recommendations to the School Board by the spring.
Meanwhile, principal Leila Mizer is looking at her options to better prepare the school's low-performing students for the March FCAT exam. The results of that test will determine whether Cox has dodged the restructuring bullet or must put all its well-laid plans into effect.
Folks at Cox are hoping for the former.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.