The lessons Lacey Metzger imparts on her students aren't always academic.
At 4 years old, her pupils sometimes need to learn how to zip and unzip their jackets, unpack their backpacks, sit for story time and socialize with peers.
“I get to teach them how to be in school,” said Metzger, who teaches nearly 40 tots between two half-day pre-kindergarten classes at Franke Park Elementary in Fort Wayne. “This is all new to them.”
Hundreds of families are taking advantage of Fort Wayne Community Schools' pre-K program, which this academic year expanded to include full-day classes at some schools. It also began accepting On My Way Pre-K grants at all elementary schools with Title I pre-K.
Available in Allen County since 2015, On My Way Pre-K – the state's pilot preschool program – awards grants to children from low-income families so they can attend a high-quality pre-K program the year before kindergarten. Families can use the grant at any approved On My Way Pre-K program.
FWCS began offering spots for On My Way Pre-K in the 2017-18 year so students living outside attendance areas for Title I schools could have access to quality pre-K programs, district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
“We knew a lot of kids in the heart of the city didn't have access to Title I pre-K,” she said.
Title I schools receive federal funds that support additional resources, such as Title I pre-K, for improving student performance. They serve high populations of children from low-income families.
As of Nov. 8, FWCS had 510 students enrolled in half-day Title I pre-K programs and 40 in full-day Title I pre-K programs at Adams and Study elementary schools. Additionally, 180 attend full-day programs at Whitney Young Early Childhood Center and Bunche Montessori Early Childhood Center; both are magnet schools.
About 160 students also attend special education pre-K programs.
Pre-K is “definitely a program parents want for their children,” said Katie Ziegler, FWCS pre-K coordinator.
Betsy Perry Patton did. Her sons – now a kindergartner and a third-grader – attended Whitney Young's pre-K program. Along with learning academics through play, she said, the boys learned such skills as how to follow directions, how to behave in a classroom and how to share.
“I believe strongly in the educational and the social benefits of starting them at pre-K,” she said, noting plans to enroll her daughter, 2, when she's old enough.
Metzger has 2 ½ hours a day with her students. The routine includes a snack, outdoor play, independent play at classroom stations and a weekly visit to the school library. Field trips are also scheduled, she said.
Academically, pre-K gives children a foundation in literacy and math, Ziegler said, and it prepares students for the rigor of full-day kindergarten. The first day of kindergarten can be daunting for children with no preschool experience, she said.
“If they didn't have that good pre-K foundation,” Ziegler said, “it's almost like they're coming in from behind.”
Early research for a longitudinal study about the state's On My Way Pre-K program shows the initiative has potential to improve students' early learning skills and readiness for kindergarten, according to a report published last month.
The program serves only 20 of Indiana's 92 counties. Expanding On My Way Pre-K is among the Indiana Department of Education's 2019 legislative priorities.
Stacy Geimer, a kindergarten teacher at Franke Park, can tell which of her students attended preschool.
“They are very independent when they come from pre-K,” Geimer said.
They also come to her classroom knowing their colors, shapes and letters as well as basic skills, including how to hold a pencil and a book.
“It helps tremendously,” Geimer said.
Imagine if all Geimer's students had pre-K, Metzger said: “They'd learn so much more.”
FWCS personnel have ongoing discussions about expanding the pre-K program, said Kimberly Brooks, Title I manager.
“We would love to educate as many 4-year-olds as we could,” she said.
Parents sometimes say age 4 is too young to start school, Brooks said, but it's often the parents who aren't ready for that milestone.
“The 4-year-old brain is just a sponge,” Ziegler said, “and they are so ready to learn.”