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    High-poverty elementary offers free, full-day PreK
    Posted on 03/31/2015
    This is the image for the news article titled High-poverty elementary offers free, full-day PreK

    It’s a daily ritual, the walk around the perimeter of the Bailey Gatzert Elementary playground: Teacher Daren Chamberlin leading 20 pre-kindergarteners, like little ducklings in a row.

    Construction workers have dug a deep pit on the other side of the fence, and the little ones wave to the hard-hatted worker standing inside, but they want to see all the way in. So the kids wait patiently in line as 6-foot-3 Chamberlin lifts each one high into the air.

    “We want the children to experience the changes that are happening in our neighborhood and see the types of work that people do,” Chamberlin says.

    Promoting school-community connections is one of the many ways that Chamberlin is preparing these students for kindergarten in the school’s new free, full-day prekindergarten – one of the first in the district.

    “There are not many of these classrooms that exist, and I just feel really honored that I get to be a part of one. It’s really important work,” says Chamberlin, who taught for 17 years in a Head Start preschool before joining Bailey Gatzert.

    The PreK classroom opened in January at the Central District elementary, where 98 percent of families are eligible for free and reduced price meals and 43 percent of students are English Language Learners.

    It’s an exciting opportunity for the community. Families are happy to send the little ones to school with their older siblings, and the students are thrilled to be there.

    “They came in taking it so seriously,” Chamberlin says. “It’s our second month of school, but it doesn’t seem like the second month because from the beginning they came in like all right, we’re here, let’s do this."

    While families living in poverty can apply for subsidized or no-cost preschool through the federally funded Head Start program, they may find that the application process can be daunting, most Head Start programs are a half day, and Head Start classrooms are not typically housed in the neighborhood school.

    “What makes this really different is that it’s truly integrated into the public school,” says Cashel Toner, Director of Early Learning for Seattle Public Schools. The school’s reading specialist and counselor visit regularly with the class, and Chamberlin is collaborating with other teachers to have fourth- and fifth-graders work with the younger students.

    A $750,000 Gates Foundation grant pays for Chamberlin’s salary, classroom materials, staff professional development and all other program expenses for the next three years. The PreK at Bailey Gatzert is not part of the Seattle Preschool Program that voters approved last year, but Toner suggests it has the potential to serve as a model while the city and school district continue to work out details.

    Many children in the community do not attend preschool at all, and students on average start Bailey Gatzert kindergarten 14 months behind, says Principal Greg Imel. “We’re modeling a school-day culture for them, but we’re also giving them pre-academic skills so they can be more successful when they hit kindergarten.”