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July 31, 2014 10:00 PM

Ready To Start The School Year

Harrisburg, SD

The hallways and playgrounds are empty at Freedom Elementary in Harrisburg, but inside these classrooms, 30 children are getting ready to become kindergarten students. For many of these kids, it's their first time learning in a classroom.

"A lot of these students haven't been exposed to numbers or letters because they haven't been in preschool," teacher Kari Kraayenbrink said.

These children are part of a program created by the Sioux Empire United Way called Ready to Start.

"It really is just an opportunity for kids that maybe haven't had any preschool experience or have demonstrated the need for special services prior to entering kindergarten. It kind of gives them a little jump start," Christina Heckenlaible of United Way said.

In the last few years, the Harrisburg, Tea, and McCook Central school districts have joined the program, with 135 students in total. It's a five-week program consisting of four half days a week. Transportation is provided to make sure the youngsters attend every day.

"They're getting that first introduction to letters and numbers. New concepts that they haven't seen before and they may not master them but it's been introduced and they'll feel a whole lot better seeing them with familiarity during the kindergarten school year," teacher Tracy Linder said.

What the students learn goes beyond just the basics.

"Going into kindergarten can be very scary for a five year-old. It helps them just ease those fears. They're able to find their desks and sit down and just basic stuff, just get use to the whole routine," Kraayenbrink said.

Harrisburg Principal Tanja Pederson has seen the progress first hand.

"They have a lot more confidence coming into school," Pederson said.

Pederson says it's not just the students going into kindergarten that benefit from this program, but also their parents.

"Moms and dads have the opportunity to ask lots of questions, get to know teachers and some of the rules and procedures that come with school," Pederson said.

No matter who's benefiting from Ready to Start, Pederson wants to thank the United Way for the opportunity its giving these students.

"Without them we wouldn't be able to have this type of program because of the funding issues," Pederson says.

Christina Heckenlaible of the United Way says it's worth the effort to see significant results from the children.

"One of the wonderful things about this program is that 100 percent of the kids that have participated in Ready to Start have been able to make significant gains throughout the five-week program," Heckenlaible said.

Heckenlaible says the students take a pre-test before taking the program, and after the five weeks, every student improves their score. The average pre-test score was 70 percent correct, and after it's 89 percent.

The teachers leading this year's group of future kindergarten students have seen improvement in both the classroom and out.

"They came in, some of them not knowing many letters or any letter and then to see them catch on, learn those letters, learn those numbers is really awesome, it's really fun to see that," Kraayenbrink said.

"It was awfully quiet the first week or so because they're a little scared, a little nervous. Now they're a little more familiar to the routine that school offers, and they're making friends, so they're a little noisier now," Linder said.

And the teachers agree that these students are now ready for the real thing.

The program is looking to expand to Canton school district next year, serving as many as 150 kids between all the districts.

If you are interested in your child joining the program next summer, you should contact your respective school district if it's participating.

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