Bolton’s prekindergarten students followed teacher Tammy Soper’s unusual requests.

Soper asked the students to turn around if two words she recited began with the same sound.

“Milk, lettuce” she said.

Nobody turned.

“Rabbit, rooster,” she said next.

The students spun around.

Then, she asked them to “leap like a lizard” when they heard words that started with the same sound.

This activity was designed to exercise students’ bodies as well as their minds. The children are trying to learn letter sounds and the letter of the day was “l” — hence the leaping like a lizard.

After a few minutes of this, it was on to another activity. A prekindergartner’s day has to be structured in 15-minute increments.

“Meeting their needs and keeping their attention in a small group setting is a real challenge,” Soper said.

Much attention has been focused on early childhood education as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has mounted a high-profile push for full-day universal pre-K. He is seeking a tax on high income earners to pay for it, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants it to be state funded and expanded beyond downstate.

Many school districts have half-day programs but few have full day pre-K. With the arrival of the more difficult Common Core curriculum, more is expected of students — even at the early grades.

“Pre-K really looks a lot like what kindergarten used to be,” Soper said. “Now

kindergarten is like first grade.”

Stronger literacy skills are all part of the foundation of the new Common Core curriculum, according to Soper. She reviews letters and numbers at the start of the day during “Circle Time,” where the children sit cross-legged in a circle.

After the leaping lizards, Soper had the students break up into groups of three. One table was working on an activity where they had to decide whether the picture on the paper represented something real or fantasy.

At another table, students were instructed to circle the pictures of objects beginning with the letter “L.”

The third table had another group working to determine if words ended in “-at” or “-an.”

Soper said splitting the students up into groups allows her to cater to different ability levels.

After lunch, the students have writing and then reading books. If students do not known how to read, they can still look at the picture and tell the story in their own way, according to Soper.

Special activities, such as art, music and physical education, occur at the end of the day, Soper said. Because she was about to go out on maternity leave, teacher aide Ryan Volkmann was shadowing her for the past couple of weeks to watch her routine. Structure is important to students at this age, according to Volkmann.

“If you don’t do something that’s within routine, they’ll point it out in 2 seconds,” he said.

Bolton school officials are pleased with the success of the program, which the district implemented in 2008.

“We’re finding that they’re being much more successful as they’re getting into the primary elementary grades,” said Superintendent Raymond Ciccarelli. “Certainly, their reading comprehension has improved.”

Elementary Principal Michael Graney said students who have been through the pre-K program are more familiar with the routines of school, such as going through the lunch line and finding their way to the bathroom.

“They hit the ground running on day one,” he said.

The majority of eligible

4-year-olds participated in the program during its first year, according to Ciccarelli. After word got around it was a good program, virtually all of the children who qualify are enrolled — 13 this year.

The district receives a state grant of $27,000 for pre-K, which does not cover the entire cost the program, so it is supplemented with local money.

Ciccarelli added full-day pre-K helps in identifying learning problems earlier. He said a half-day program is not sufficient to accommodate speech and occupational therapy, counseling and literacy instruction.

“You would have a minimal amount of time for those extra services,” he said.

Prekindergartners’ day is structured, although it contains plenty of opportunities for play. Soper believes a lot of learning happens through play.

For example, early in the year, students may cry if they don’t get to play with a toy that they want. But after three months, they learn they have to wait their turn.

On this particular day, several boys were playing with toy dinosaurs. One boy was asking a lot of questions about what type of dinosaurs they were. “Maybe you should get an iPad and look this up,” Soper said.

Fun and learning combined

Other full-day pre-K programs follow a similar structure mixing fun with instruction.

At Warren County Head Start in Glens Falls, teacher Johnna MacDonald’s class officially begins with a morning meeting. On this particular day, it was the first time back from winter break and MacDonald asked the students to count the days of vacation.

After the meeting, the children got a choice of playing at various “centers” that stimulate their senses.

“At this age, children need to be able to move,” MacDonald said. “They’re learning to make decisions.”

There is a math and science discovery area and a play area where children can play dress up or pretend they are cooking in a kitchen. There is also an art area where students were making numbers and shapes using Moon Sand — a moldable type of sand similar to dry PlayDoh — and using “magnetiles,” which are square magnets that can be stuck together to make various shapes.

Elias Ruggiero was diligently working on a church, complete with a tall steeple.

Aiden Prunty was scaling bigger heights — trying to build a skyscraper to the ceiling with Legos while Roxzee Hammond was steadying it to prevent it from falling.

The different activities are part of what Head Start calls its “creative curriculum,” according to Executive Director Kathy Stewart.

“It follows a child’s interests. Our environments are set up so children have many different learning opportunities in all areas of development,” she said.

Writing is also a big focus at this age. Students begin pre-K at different ability levels, according to MacDonald.

“I have a lot of ones that know most of the alphabet,” she said. “What we hope to do is provide them exposure to a wide range of material to help them progress along.”

Learning social skills

School is not just about the academics, MacDonald added, as students need to learn self-control and independence. For example, some students may not be used to having to share toys or know how to interact with others. The students even learn skills at breakfast, which is served family-style with food being passed around the table.

Before the parents arrive to pick up their children, MacDonald puts together take-home “buckets” of materials for parents about what their child needs to work on.

Stewart said Head Start focuses on the entire family by providing parents with support services and information on how they can help their children.

“We believe that parents really are the most important teacher that a child will ever have,” she said.

Parents also are involved in the policy council, similar to a school board, which makes decisions about the curriculum. Council President Casey LaFlure of Pottersville said Head Start has been extremely helpful in teaching her daughter basic habits, such as hand washing and brushing teeth. Her daughter developed a large vocabulary, can count to 20, enjoys interacting with peers and has become more confident.

Warren County Head Start has 216 prekindergarten students, according to Stewart. The organization awards the slots based on a point system that takes into account family income. The school first must accept children coming from families whose income is up to 120 percent of the poverty level, according to Stewart.

Head Start has a collaboration with Glens Falls City School District, which pays $2,500 per student to attend the program.

The district’s own program is only a half day. Glens Falls pre-K teacher Jolene Walajtys said if the district had full-day pre-K, she would also be able to go deeper into the lessons.

Like the other pre-K programs, short lessons are interspersed with play and other activities. Walajtys moves from topic to topic

so the children don’t get too restless because of their short attention spans at this age.

One minute, she is singing a song to the children with a green puppet on her hand and the next, she is describing how to write both a lowercase and uppercase letter “D” and the number 2.

Some basic math concepts are also introduced.

Students were given a sheet with a series of pictures of hearts of various sizes — some were white and others had dots. The children had to recognize the pattern, cut out another one that matched and paste into the square using a glue stick.

“It’s part of the Common Core curriculum that they learn how to complete patterns,” Walajtys said.

The task also got children to work on their fine motor skills by learning how to use scissors, she added.

Walajtys, who has taught first, second, fourth and fifth grade, said pre-K is by far her favorite age group.

“I love their energy. The kids have such wonderful positive energy. The kids are fun to be around,” she said.

Education officials like Stewart are excited childhood education is getting its due.

“It really is important the children have that solid foundation to be prepared for school and later in life,” Stewart said.

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