For the first time since pre-K started in Marshall County four years ago, more children were eligible than could be accommodated.
Fifty-six children were eligible this year, explained Salina Moorehead, teacher and pre-K coordinator, so a public drawing was held to fill the 40 places. The remaining 16 were put on a waiting list, with their place on the list established by a random drawing.
The state-funded pre-K program pays for two classrooms at Oak Grove Elementary, with a teacher and an aide for each one, so 40 four-year-olds will get the advantages of pre-kindergarten education free of charge in Marshall County this year.
"I do believe we're doing a good thing here," Moorehead said.
Oak Grove principal Judy Rickman agreed as she visited Moorehead's classroom.
"It's a wonderful thing," Rickman said. "They're off to a good start."
Thursday, Aug. 19, was the first day for all 20 pre-K students to be in class at the same time.
"It's always an interesting day," Moorehead said with a laugh.
Before that Moorehead and her fellow pre-K teacher, Carrie Matthews, had been taking the children in groups of six or seven to get them accustomed to classroom manners and routine.
"We're working with the families as well," Moorehead said. "We have a lot of family contact." The parents have to bring their child to Oak Grove and sign them in and out each day. There is a Family Night each month and one visit to the child's home is required each year.
Marshall County's pre-K program was housed at Lewisburg Middle School for two years, but moved to Oak Grove last year. Moorehead likes this because this way her pre-K pupils get to see more children close to their own age in the halls, and also have access to age-appropriate library, music and art activities.
Also housed at Oak Grove is "developmental pre-K" for about 17 children that have been identified as needing special education services.
Moorehead and Matthews screen the children at the beginning of the year to identify strengths and weaknesses and at the end of the year to measure how much they have progressed.
The teachers and their assistants work one-on-one with the children as much as possible, looking for those "teachable moments." The pre-K rooms are full of colorful books, toys and games, but there are serious standards and a research-based curriculum that needs to be taught in the course of the year.
"We couldn't do it without our assistants," Moorehead said, as she gets Dixie Hobby to read a pre-lunch story to the group.
"Have a seat on a cloud," Moorehead urges the children, pointing to the clouds that are part of the pattern of a big rug in the reading area.
"Great listening," she complements them, as they each find a spot. Then they're off to the cafeteria, where Moorehead and Hobby and the patient cafeteria ladies help the little ones choose food and carry trays to their table.
The children eat breakfast in the classroom when they get to school at 8:30 a.m. and have an afternoon snack before going home at 2 p.m.
"They're very sweet," Moorehead said, pleased with the work she's doing to help Marshall County's children be ready for kindergarten and a lifetime of learning.
Support for pre-K programs goes right up to the governor.
"Long term, pre-K is just as important as standards, community college or any of the other things we believe will yield even more immediate dividends," Gov. Phil Bredesen said.
"On the national level, long-term studies have been done, and the evidence is there to support the continued benefits of the program. The overwhelming thing these studies tell us is that pre-K not only gives children a head-start in school, but that it helps them develop social skills that lead to success later in life.
"Dollar for dollar, pre-K is one of the best investments we can make in the future of our children," Bredesen said.
Participation in a pre-K program not only helps children to be ready for kindergarten and subsequent grades, it also helps them right on into adult life. The Tennessee Department of Education Web site quotes an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association that concludes; "Adults who participated in high-quality early childhood education programs during their preschool years are more likely to be literate and enrolled in post-secondary education and are less likely to be school dropouts, dependent on welfare or arrested for criminal activity."