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Oysterponds Elementary School seeking to extend pre-K program

When Oysterponds Elementary School in Orient established a pre-kindergarten program a few years ago, it did so to combat dwindling enrollment by attracting new families to the district.

Now that the district has deemed the half-day program for 4-year-olds a success, the school board is considering other ways to bring more young children into the district.

For example, Oysterponds may soon offer full-day pre-K classes and add a half-day program for 3-year-olds.

In addition, district administrators hope to develop a “pre-first program” that would help kindergartners who struggle with classwork and better prepare them for first grade.

“Traditionally, what was done in kindergarten in the past is no longer sufficient to get the children ready to move on through the grades,” Superintendent Richard Malone said in an interview. “We’ve been evaluating our reorganization over the last couple of years and we’re finding that we need more time with the children at the early childhood level.”

Principal Jen Wissemann said expanding the pre-K program to a full day is also necessary to accommodate working families.

“I personally have received a number of phone calls asking if we have a full-day pre-K,” she said. “People even ask if we have a 2-year-old program.”

During last Tuesday’s school board meeting, teachers Jenny Schoenstein and Brittany Knote outlined the current pre-K program, which combines pre-K and kindergarten students for some classes, including art and music. After the kindergartners leave, pre-K students have about 20 minutes to go over what they learned that day.

“It’s pretty quick for the pre-K students, so it would be nice if they had a longer day,” Ms. Knote said.

In addition to providing early childhood education opportunities, the pre-K program was designed to boost diminishing enrollment — a problem the Orient district, which serves pre-K through sixth-grade students — has struggled with in recent years.

The 2010 census data shows a total district population of 1,669 — an increase of 204 over 2000 — but that population is an aging one. During that decade, the median age in East Marion rose from 49 to 53.7; Orient’s median age increased from 54 to 57.3.

The result has been fewer elementary students for Oysterponds; district numbers show that enrollment fell by nearly 12 percent between 2010 and 2013.

The district created its first pre-K program during the 2012-13 school year, after Mr. Malone projected that enrollment would drop from 81 to 69. At that time, the possibility of having to close the school due to lagging enrollment was discussed. But with success of the pre-K program’s first year, enrollment actually remained about the same, at 80 students. Currently, 79 students attend the school.

Mr. Malone said that 11 out-of-district pre-K students have enrolled at Oysterponds since the program was established.

During that time, the school also combined grade levels: pre-K and kindergarten are now Primary 1; grades 1 and 2 comprise Primary 2; grades 3 and 4 are Intermediate 1; and grades 5 and 6 are Intermediate 2.

Mr. Malone described morale in the district as better than ever and noted that attendance has improved noticeably in the past three years.

“Development of children at this level varies tremendously,” he said. “Some are ready to go to the next grade and some need more time.”

The school board expects to continue discussing the possible expansion the pre-K program at its next meeting on Dec. 8.

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