CHARLESTOWN — Two students sat focused, hunting for the letter "L" to stamp with a dot highlighter, as their teacher Brittany Mellum Schoen helped guide them through the exercise.

The other students in the Pleasant Ridge Elementary preschool class were in various learning stations, working with teacher assistants as they learned about shapes, colors and more.

A nearly $2 million Title 1 federal grant is helping Greater Clark County Schools keep seven preschool classrooms open in the district.

"We believe strong that we need to have [a preschool program] in place. We have had preschool in the past and this year [the grant] was a way for us to continue that," said GCCS Assistant Superintendent Kim Hartlage. "Our hope is that we will continue to expand it and have it in all our schools in our district and maybe have two or three classrooms [per school]."

Emy Lorigan, preschool coordinator for GCCS, said preschool is much more than just learning ABCs.

"The academics are important to us, but it's also those skills they need to be successful in kindergarten," Lorigan said. "If they aren't ready socially or emotionally, then the academic side will never come."

To address that, Schoen also focuses on teaching the basics, such as how to follow directions, wait turns, stand in line and even how to deal with emotions during school.

"It's OK to be upset, but there's a way of coping and what you can and cannot do in school," Schoen said.

She also brings in popular toys to create ways to make learning fun, such as a dramatic play area that is sometimes an auto shop and other times a doctor's office — both teaching social skills while learning academics, such as vocabulary, letter recognition, numbers and more.

"We want them to see school is fun and to develop a love for learning and, hopefully, that will carry on with them throughout being in school and into adulthood, where they will be lifelong learners," Lorigan said.

"A lot of times people think of preschool as, 'Oh, they are just playing,'" Schoen said. "And yes, we are playing, but we're also incorporating all of the state standards into that play."

Schoen is a certified teacher and she works alongside two paraeducators, who serve as teaching assistants in a classroom of about 16 students. Schoen has two school sessions a day, one in the morning and another class comes in the afternoons. Right now, there are 27 children on her waiting list to get in to the program.

Hartlage hopes to alleviate that problem, by seeking additional revenue sources, such as On My Way Pre-K, which is a state funded program that provides grants to participating schools for providing preschool to low income families.

"We're trying to pursue as many different avenues as we can with funding, so that we can have more classrooms throughout our district," Hartlage said. "Most families that seek preschool, they have to go pay for it privately. That becomes a big obstacle for some families."

The GCCS program costs $150/year for a student to attend if the family doesn't qualify for a reduced rate. Compared to nearby preschool options at more than $150/month, that adds up to savings to families.

"What we would like, eventually, is that all of our students who are going to be kindergarteners, that they have at least one year of preschool before they transition into kindergarten," Hartlage said. "They you will have a smoother transition."

Hartlage said money from the grant will also provide funds for an academic improvement coordinator in the Title 1 schools.

"[They] will help teachers provide effective instruction and to also use data to identify students who aren't performing at acceptable levels and help provide intervention and narrow those gaps with the deficiencies," Hartlage said.

The grant will also help fund parental involvement events, which aim to educate parents on how to expand on what is happening on the classroom at home.

Hartlage said the grant came with many rules on how the money can be spent, so it is limited at this time to benefit Title 1 schools.

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