Amoray Smith, Danville district applying for grant to offer all-day pre-kindergarten

Amoray Smith, 5, practices his letters during free time Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in his pre-kindergarten class at Southwest Elementary School in Danville. The district hopes to apply for a Preschool for All expansion grant that would allow it to launch three all-day pre-K classes for 4-year-olds, starting next school year.

Come next school year, some pre-kindergarten pupils in the Danville school district could be attending a full day of school.

District officials, with board approval, plan to apply for a Preschool for All expansion grant from the state. If approved, the district would offer three all-day classrooms, each with about 15 4-year-olds.

“This will assist working families and better prepare our children to make the transition to kindergarten,” said John Hart, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

Hart said the grant would allow the district to hire three more pre-K teachers, three teaching assistants, a home liaison and an instructional coach.

He said grant recipients likely won’t be notified until late July or early August, so “it’s going to be a quick turnaround.”

Danville’s pre-K program enrolls about 400 students who attend morning or after sessions at Southwest Elementary and, as of December, Edison Elementary.

The program — which has earned a “gold status” distinction because of its many teacher, student and family supports — provides the opportunity for socialization with other children and early academic skills that set the tone for success in school and life.

The district is the administrative agent for the Preschool for All grant in Vermilion County, which also funds programs in Georgetown-Ridge Farm, Hoopeston, Oakwood, Potomac, Rossville, Salt Fork and Westville schools.

Hart said Salt Fork is asking for an additional classroom, and Oakwood is hoping for a half-day expansion.

Recent studies by law-enforcement officials and leading business executives, using Illinois State Board of Education data, show that roughly three-fourths of all students entering kindergarten in Illinois lack the necessary readiness skills in at least one of three critical areas — social emotional development, literacy or math.

Because of that, researchers argue, many fall behind in their early elementary years and have difficulty throughout their school careers.

Maurita Keyser, a pre-K teacher at Southwest, said students only get about 2 1/2 hours of academic instruction time during a half-day session.

“Now we’ll have more time to focus on academics in large-group and small-group settings,” Keyser said. “Plus, there will be more time to work on social skills and just have that peer interaction and learn the rules and routines to prepare them for kindergarten.”

“Some kids are dual-enrolled here and at Head Start or at Head Start and private day care, or they go to a baby sitter,” she continued. “So they have two sets of rules and expectations. That’s really hard for a 4-year-old to understand: It’s OK to do this here, but you can’t do it here. This will give them continuity.”

Under the grant, pre-K students would be required to follow the typical day of a first-grader, Hart said. First-graders are in school from 7:50 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“We were hoping we’d have a little more say,” said Hart. “That’s a long day for a 4-year-old. Many of us felt it was too long of day. But we’ll have downtime built into the program.”

“They will have nap time or quiet time where they can sit and read a book or do an activity quietly,” Keyser added.

This year, the district is also piloting a kindergarten-readiness program called “Kindergarten Blast Off,” Keyser said.

The first session will run two weeks at the end of this school year in June at Mark Denman Elementary, and a second session will run two weeks before the start of the coming year in August — “hopefully, at the school they’ll attend.”

“They do the whole kindergarten routine, so they have a jump start,” Keyser said. “We’ll have a chance to show them: These are our expectations, this is how we get to the cafeteria, this is what circle time looks like.

“In preschool, they learn through play,” she said. “Kindergarten is a lot of: Sit down, do the worksheets and tests. That’s a big adjustment, and we’re trying to prepare them for that.”