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Berkeley County expands popular pre-K program

600-plus can enroll

February 12, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - "The 14th grade" in Berkeley County's school system is optional, but there has been no shortage of public demand for the district's still relatively new pre-kindergarten program, school officials said last week.

Less than a month from opening registration for the program's fifth academic year, district administrators agreed last week to partner with three more privately operated early childhood day-care centers - which will effectively allow student enrollment to surpass 600 this fall.

Yet even with a total of seven public-private partnerships, the school district only will be able to teach about half of the eligible children, according to Kimberly Hough, the school district's assistant director of special education.

Despite a coordinated effort to meet a state mandate that all 4-year-olds in West Virginia have the opportunity to attend a pre-kindergarten program by the 2012-2013 school year, "we have quite a ways to go," Hough said.

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All 3-year-old children who have special needs must have the same opportunity, according to 2002 legislation adopted by the West Virginia Legislature.

For the 2008-09 school year, half-day pre-K programs must decrease in size from 20 to 15 students, Hough said.

As with the district's other 13 grades, finding classroom space is a challenge. But there are unique requirements as well, she said.

At Winchester Elementary School in Martinsburg, Principal Dean Warrenfeltz said a former kindergarten classroom was converted for pre-K, but the school still needs to install "age-appropriate" playground equipment, including a "trike area" where the younger children can develop motor skills.

"It is a challenge to find classroom space within the schools and in the community," said Warrenfeltz, who along with Hough is a member of the district's Universal Pre-K Collaborative Planning Committee.

The panel, chaired by Hough, includes representatives of the day-care centers, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and the state board of education's regional education service agency for eastern West Virginia, known as RESA VIII.

Though privately operated day-cares have been able to provide classroom space, Hough said the pre-K program is supposed to be equally divided between the public and private sector.

Because of overall enrollment growth, Hough said Berkeley County's use of private partners was slightly more than half - about 52 percent.

As with the four existing day-care center partnerships, the school system will provide the teacher for classes to be held at Norborne Preschool & Day Care Center in Martinsburg, New Beginnings Child Care in Inwood, W.Va., and Teddy Bear Preschool in Bunker Hill, W.Va., she said.

Hough said classes also will be added at Pikeside Academic Learning Center, where a collaboration of agencies provides services to children with special needs.

Altogether, there will be 16 locations for parents to choose from and, she said, the program now operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

Last year, all but one program site - Back Creek Valley Elementary School - had a waiting list that ranged from 15 to 20 students, Hough said. Head Start, a federally funded pre-K program for low-income families, was backlogged with about 60 students, she said.

The programs use the same curriculum and the only differences in the Head Start program benefit the parents, including transportation service and a home visit, she said.

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