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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Mary Kelley works with Isaiah Gannon, right, while Steven Goryayinov rolls out his clay to make a car in their preschool classroom at Bicentennial Elementary School Thursday, February 9, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Steven Goryayinov and Natalie Nguyen listen to a story in a preschool classroom at Bicentennial Elementary School Thursday, February 9, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Preschool instructor Debbie Dunne, right, teaches the days of the week to her class at Bicentennial Elementary School Thursday, February 9, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Preschoolers work in a carpeted area of their classroom at Bicentennial Elementary School Thursday, February 9, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Students in a preschool classroom at Bicentennial Elementary School learn colors and shapes along with each others names Thursday, February 9, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Preschoolers, from left, Nicolai Vanderveen, Ryan Ostrowski, Pratham Mukewar, Marissa Williams, and Sam Gonzales listen to a story in their classroom at Bicentennial Elementary School Thursday, February 9, 2012.
Monday, February 20, 2012

Nashua School District looks to add preschool classes

NASHUA – Preschoolers Steven Goryayinov and Bianca Selinger shared a moment of self-discovery with each other during class at Bicentennial Elementary School.

“B is for Bianca,” Selinger said, holding up a plastic cutout shaped like the letter, and then smushing it into a pile of purple Play-Doh.

“Look,” Steven said, waving his hands and peeling his own creation from the clay – a Play-Doh car.

The small interaction is an important part of the preschool program at Bicentennial, known as Play Pals, which instills communication and social skills to its groups of 3- and 4-year-olds, some of whom have special needs.

The Play Pals program, however, serves only 72 students, and the district enrollment for all preschool programs is just over 300.

The School District wants to bolster its effort toward early childhood education and is proposing to add another two sessions of preschool in next year’s budget at a cost of $94,425.

The two classes would be intended for a group of at-risk students, especially those who would be entering kindergarten or first grade without a full grasp of English or without any previous experience in a classroom.

“The initial investment is small, the number of kids is small, but our idea is to start small and then expand,” said Marcia Bagley, the district’s preschool coordinator. “The earlier you intervene with students, the better, and that goes for any student with any need or background.”

On top of the Play Pals program, the Nashua School District has a special-education preschool program with 175 students, a Title I preschool program with 45 students, and another small preschool program at Nashua High School South with 30 students.

The district wants to add one preschool classroom each of the next three years. Locations have yet to be determined and the qualifications for eligible students is still being ironed out by district administrators.

The goal is to improve preparation for kindergarten and first grade, Bagley said.

Every Nashua public school reports that some of its kindergartens are not ready for school, and some percentages are extremely high, she said.

At Amherst Street School, nearly three quarters of incoming kindergarten students were not adequately prepared, based on teacher feedback, Bagley said. Birch Hill Elementary and Broad Street Elementary showed 38 and 21 percent of students not ready for school, respectively, and the lowest figure for any school was 8 percent, at Charlotte Avenue Elementary.

“The biggest reason we need this class is that we are constantly behind the eight-ball in getting these kids ready for school,” she said. “Our students are constantly trying to narrow that gap, but it gets harder and harder. They’re always chasing a moving target.”

In October, Nashua enrollment figures showed 789 students in kindergarten. Teacher surveys showed that at least 39 percent of those kids were not ready for kindergarten.

“We spend a lot of time getting kids caught up when we could invest the time early on and keep the whole pendulum swinging upwards,” Bagley said.

Although kindergarten was recently made part of a required public education, public preschool is not mandated by the state. There is a national push for greater access to early childhood education, but New Hampshire is one of 10 states with no public preschool program, according to a 2010 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

However, the proposed additional classroom would push Nashua further ahead in preschool offerings compared with cities and towns around the state.

The Manchester School District has about 300 students in its preschool programs, while smaller districts like Merrimack, Hudson and Milford have smaller enrollments of about 80, 60 and 25 students, respectively.

Fewer students or smaller programs don’t mean there is less need for early childhood education. Nashua’s proposal for an additional classroom is in line with the mission of many districts, according to Hudson Superintendent Randy Bell.

“What Nashua’s doing is happening in most school districts,” he said.

The Hudson preschool program has expanded substantially in the past five years, Bell said, and the district hopes to continue that push forward with more funding and space in the future.

“We want to be bridging the gap between parents, families and their school to show how important this education is,” Bagley said.

Nashua preschool teacher Bella Guilmartin knows. She has taught 3- and 4-year-olds for 33 years, and now spends her time rolling Play-Doh and reading stories to the Play Pals kids at Bicentennial.

She focuses on language to help the children obtain social skills, so it can be easier to share conversations with their peers.

When kids struggle to express their emotions or talk to others, frustration and anger can set in and make for bigger problems, she said.

“When children don’t have good communication skills, a lot of times they have more behavioral issues,” she said.

At a recent morning session, Guilmartin watched those teachings at work, as Steven and Bianca crafted their Play-Doh into shapes. Each student worked independently but shared their creations collectively, and always with a big smile.

“We want it to be fun and for them to perceive school as a great place to be,” Guilmartin said.

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com. Check out Kittle (@Telegraph_CamK) on Twitter.