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Pinellas schools just expanded pre-K programs. They want more to enroll.

More than two dozen schools now offer full-day sessions, making it easier on families and giving kids a better start before kindergarten.
Teacher Diane Thomssen explains the concept of collage art to her prekindergarten students on Tuesday at Dunedin Elementary. The Pinellas County school district's free VPK program has been expanded and runs during the school year.
Teacher Diane Thomssen explains the concept of collage art to her prekindergarten students on Tuesday at Dunedin Elementary. The Pinellas County school district's free VPK program has been expanded and runs during the school year. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 27|Updated Jan. 27

DUNEDIN — Diane Thomssen had just the thing for her class of 4- and 5-year-olds on a cold and rainy Tuesday morning.

“Let’s stand up and spread a little sunshine,” the prekindergarten teacher told the dozen children, who had gathered on a rug for circle time at Dunedin Elementary.

The group rose to sing and dance with a music video, working on their memorization and motor skills, then talked about what they planned to do to spread their sunshine for the day: hugging, sharing, caring.

They moved to their next activity, quickly reviewing the previous day’s lessons and talking about Tuesday, which starts with “T,” which is written with a horizontal and vertical line. And, yes, they can spell out the rest. Then Thomssen turned to the work of artist Michael Albert, who makes collages using cut up cereal and other boxes.

She handed the children bags of cut up boxes to create their own “cerealism” (that’s five syllables) before spending an hour at small group learning stations that included engineering and reading.

From left: Cole Davis, Adriel Valencia-Camilo, Bjorn Frioud and Brayden McCafferty play with a coordination game while attending Diane Thomssen’s Voluntary Prekindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary School.
From left: Cole Davis, Adriel Valencia-Camilo, Bjorn Frioud and Brayden McCafferty play with a coordination game while attending Diane Thomssen’s Voluntary Prekindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary School. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“You’re just fostering their sense of wonderment,” said Thomssen, who explained that her entire day is based on learning through play. “If I do that, the rest falls into place.”

This year, Dunedin Elementary became one of 26 Pinellas County elementary schools to add free, full-day prekindergarten classes to its offerings. Using federal coronavirus stimulus funds, the district aimed to bring the program to areas where families did not take advantage of half-day pre-K classes, often because they could not afford to pick up their children midday or pay for services after the classes ended.

The goal, early childhood specialist Gail Ramsdell said, was to get more youngsters on sound and equal footing in preparation for kindergarten. That includes skills such as naming most letters of the alphabet and understanding the general concepts of adding and subtracting.

“We want to help children achieve 4-year-old expectations,” Ramsdell said. “That’s going to set them up for the standards that come next.”

Related: Pinellas to expand prekindergarten in 25 public schools

About 600 prekindergartners spread across 40 classrooms took advantage of the program. They’re in the midst of midyear observations and assessments to determine how much progress they’ve made.

Dunedin Elementary principal Kerry Wyatt said it’s important for schools that serve high percentages of families in need to have a free, full-day prekindergarten. When offering the half-day usually provided under the state’s Voluntary Prekindgergarten program, not everyone could participate, she said.

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It’s easy to distinguish between the children who attend pre-K and those who don’t, she added.

“There is a difference in their social, emotional and academic success,” Wyatt said. “There is no comparison.”

To her, teachers like Thomssen, who has spent nearly 30 years in early education, make a huge impact. Wyatt said the first time she visited Thomssen’s classroom, she found children lying on their backs under tables, painting the “ceiling” while learning about Michelangelo.

To students, that’s just the way school should be

“It’s fun,” said Brayden McCafferty, as he experimented with magnetized toys. “I learn stuff here, but I play here.”

Ava Mills shows off her engineering toys creation while attending Diane Thomssen’s Voluntary Prekindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary School.
Ava Mills shows off her engineering toys creation while attending Diane Thomssen’s Voluntary Prekindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary School. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Asked about his favorite part of school, Bjorn Frioud talked about the toys. He also said he learned with those toys.

“I learn about patterns, like, glue-paper-glue-paper-glue-paper. That’s a pattern,” he said as he created his “cerealism” collage.

Beside him, Kimberly Ortiz won her teacher’s praise for her patient work with shapes and glue as she designed her collage. Afterward, Kimberly used a purple marker to write her first and last name on the back.

She did not know any letters when she started pre-K in the fall.

“She learned it all just by playing,” Thomssen said, as the little girl grinned.

The lessons extend beyond the academic, she added. The children discover how to be part of a group, how the school operates, how to make friends.

Some never have been away from home before, Thomssen noted.

“Kids just need life experiences that they probably would not get at home,” she said. “They thrive with other kids. We offer them a safe environment to be with other kids and also to explore and grow.”

The district has capacity for more students in the program, Ramsdell said, and hopes to see numbers rise as families register for the 2022-23 school year.

Families that applied by the end of January will learn whether they got a seat in early March. Another enrollment period will come later in the year.

• • •

Signing up for Pinellas pre-K

Pinellas County Schools offers prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds at dozens of elementary schools. The application period for the 2022-23 school year ends on Monday, Jan. 31. The late application period starts March 21.

Visit pcsb.org/early for a list of schools, requirements and information on how to apply. For more information, call the district’s Early Childhood Education office at 727-588-6513.

• • •

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