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THINK OF IT AS TRAINING CAMP

The program gives kindergarteners plenty of practice as they make the transition to elementary school.

Classes don't officially begin in Pasco County schools for another three weeks.

Don't tell Anisa Churruca.

The talkative 5-year-old spent Monday morning cutting and pasting, reading and writing, playing and snacking at Sand Pine Elementary School on County Line Road.

"I'm excited because today is my first day," Anisa said, who counted playing outside and sitting at her desk among her favorite activities. "I know how to be super-duper smart. We do it every day."

Anisa's "first day" actually was kindergarten camp, a four-day program that Sand Pine developed three years ago to make children and their parents feel more comfortable with the transition to elementary school. For a small fee their parents willingly paid, the 30 or so children will get lessons on things like how to ride a bus, how to navigate the cafeteria food line and how to sit "criss-cross applesauce."

"It really does make the first day of kindergarten easier for kindergarteners," principal Ginny Yanson said.

The camp has proven so successful that other Wesley Chapel area schools, including Seven Oaks and Double Branch, also have started versions this summer. District officials were unaware of the program reaching any west side schools yet.

Educators said they like having some of their students on campus early, so they can assess their students' academic needs and get to know them socially. When the children have made friends and figured out the rules ahead of time, they said, they feel more confident when the bell rings for real.

Some of the youngsters feel so at ease that they actually offer to help classmates who hadn't attended the four half-day sessions.

"The small numbers are good," said Chrissy Jones, a fourth-year teacher, as she monitored snack time of juice boxes and Goldfish crackers. "But it would be nice if all kids could come."

The day had its share of crying and inattention. It also helped to ease some nerves.

And for the most part, any inability to follow directions or even sit still had more to do with the sheer thrill of being a big kid now.

"It's just very cool here," 5-year-old Josh Lenczden effused, before racing off to the playground. "We're going to be in Angelfish class (the classroom name) and I wonder what that is going to be like. We did coloring, and we got to do coconuts on trees. It's just real cool here."

Not just for the kids.

While their children spent time in classrooms, parents sat in the media center getting the scoop on what they need to know to make the best of their time at the school. They got information on the PTA, volunteer opportunities and academic expectations.

Counselor Linda Matthews also gave some helpful hints on ways to help their children succeed. One of the key points: Don't tell them not to be afraid, because it's natural to be scared of something new.

She told parents to create a goodbye ritual, so they don't get stuck in a endless loop hug.

As for something you might not think of, teach the children how to open ketchup packets. They come with many cafeteria meals, and having that skill mastered can bolster confidence, Matthews noted.

Parents of all experience levels said they appreciate the opportunity.

"I did it because he did not go to preschool," Jennifer Otte said of her youngest son, Ethan. "He hasn't been to a structured school and I wanted him to know how it works."

"It makes the first day much, much easier," Scott Otte added.

Shabana Churruca, Anisa's mom, said she wanted her daughter to become familiar with the surroundings and to understand the increased structure of the school day. With Anisa being her only child, Churruca also liked getting information on the school's expectations.

Like her daughter, Churruca was more excited than nervous about the first day of school. Her husband, Jose, agreed.

"It's actually a proud moment," Jose Churruca said. "Even though she's only 5, she's starting to grow up."

"You feel like you're doing something right," Shabana Churruca added.

The school year begins Aug. 20.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

FAST FACTS

Kindergarten prep

Elementary schools expect kindergarteners to have certain skills on the first day of class. They include:

Social: leave parents without undue stress, take turns, share, demonstrate qualities of a friend.

Reading: recognize name in print, know some letter names and sounds, know words can rhyme, know how to listen to a story.

Math: count to 10 or beyond, count objects, know money has value, know basic shapes and colors, recognize simple patterns.

Writing: write first name, hold a pencil correctly, use scissors, draw picture to convey message.

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