With small hands grasping those of their parents for support, and with expressions ranging from fear to excitement seen in their eyes, hundreds of Columbus’ youngest students stepped into school for the first time on Wednesday.

They became part of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation’s newest curriculum update: Full-day, five-days-a-week prekindergarten.

About 350 4-year-olds turned out for their first day of school ever, with full-day pre-K programs available at all BCSC elementary schools except Columbus Signature Academy — Lincoln campus, Clifty Creek Elementary and Schmitt Elementary, said Shane Yates, the district’s new preschool director.

CSA-Lincoln students attend prekindergarten at the CSA-Fodrea campus, while Clifty Creek and Schmitt students attend class at the R.L. Johnson Early Childhood Center on Sycamore Street, Yates said.

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For $150 a week, with scholarship options available, parents can enroll their children in BCSC’s pre-K program, where students will learn skills such as number and letter recognition and how to properly interact with other students.

Social skills are the most important lessons that are taught during this first year of school, preschool teachers Nicole Boyer and Kim Backmeyer said. Many of the students have never spent extended periods of time with others their age, so the teachers said their classrooms focus on skills such as kindness and collaboration.

Some schools, such as the Johnson Center where Boyer and Backmeyer teach, already were offering full-day prekindergarten programs before this year. But for other schools, the start of the new school year was a new experience for students and teachers alike.

Smith Elementary School, for example, previously only offered half-day prekindergarten, so Sue Edwards was hired as an additional preschool teacher to compensate for the program’s expansion.

Opening-day jitters

Edwards was ready and waiting for her new students Wednesday morning as they arrived at Smith, oftentimes in tears and clinging to their parents as their anxieties about being away from home began to get the best of them.

Chrysti Jordan’s son, Elliot, was among the students who broke into tears as he began his first day of preschool. Jordan said her son had stayed with a babysitter in the past, but had never been away from his mother for an extended period of time.

Elliot is Jordan’s first child to go to preschool, Leaving her 4-year-old son at school was difficult for her as well, she said.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, where did my baby go?'” she said.

But as she walked out of the school and tried to fight back tears herself, Jordan said she expected that by the end of the day, Elliot would have warmed up to his teachers and classmates and would be excited to return to preschool for the rest of the year.

While many students at Smith showed their emotions, others were more calm about the idea of leaving their families for an entire day.

Holly Summers, for example, said her daughter, Brooklyn, had been excitedly talking about the prospect of going to preschool for several days leading up to Wednesday.

After a quick hug and kiss goodbye from her mom, Brooklyn calmly took her seat next to Edwards as she followed her teacher’s instructions and acclimated herself to her new academic environment.

Brooklyn had been in daycare programs, so the 4-year-old girl is used to being around other children and adults, Summers said. As she began her first day of real school, Summers said her daughter was excited about making new friends.

“It’s a big jump, but she’s been pretty calm,” she said.

The district’s preschool teachers also remained calm as they immediately began teaching their students new social skills.

First-day lessons

One of the biggest lessons preschoolers learned Wednesday was the simple task of forming a line and following the student in front of them as they made their way around the school. Efforts were also made to instill other skills, such as keeping their hands to themselves, in the 4-year-olds.

As students learn new life and academic skills, Yates said the district’s teachers are aiming to help their students learn through interactions, rather than traditional academic methods.

For example, Wednesday’s preschool classrooms were filled with the sights of students learning by building with blocks, reading interactive books or playing in small groups.

BCSC preschool students won’t fill out many worksheets, Yates said, but instead will learn their lessons through their experiences in the classroom and their interactions with other students.

Even though the BCSC preschool program lost some funding this year due to a grant that expired at the end of the last school year, Yates said there is still a widespread need for local preschool, which is why the district chose to expand the program despite funding shortfalls. The $150 a week rate is slightly higher than last year’s preschool rate, an increase was meant to offset part of the funding loss, Yates said.

This year’s initial preschool enrollment is somewhat lower than it has been in years past, so parents can still enroll their children even though the school year has already started, the preschool director said.

Although the 4-year-old preschoolers are on a different academic and emotional level than the elementary schools’ oldest sixth-grade students, Yates said teachers at each school go out of their way to make the district’s youngest students feel welcome in their new academic environments.

“We want them to feel like they’re part of the school family,” he said.

With built-in breaks throughout the day — including two recesses and a designated resting period, as well as lunch — Yates said the district’s preschool program is designed to ease young students into the world of school while also keeping them constantly engaged and learning about the world around them.

Preschool curriculum

BCSC’s new preschool director said the district adheres to two main curriculum programs for preschool students:

  • Foundational standards: A set of 27 standards that address the basic social and academic skills 4-year-olds should master before beginning kindergarten.
  • Reggio emilia: A teaching philosophy that focuses on helping young students learn through nature, interactions, experiences and play.

Preschool students will learn social skills such as collaboration and cooperation with other students and adults, and academic skills such as letter and number recognition.

Preschool enrollment trends

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. preschool enrollment trends

2011-2012: 380 students

2012-2013: 395 students

2013-2014: 449 students

2014-2015: 433 students

2015-2016: 465 students

Source: Indiana Department of Education

Key school dates

Key vacation days for the Flatrock-Hawcreek School Corp.:

Sept. 5: Labor Day

Oct. 10-14: Fall break

Nov. 21-25: Thanksgiving break

Dec. 22-Jan. 8: Winter break

Jan. 16: Martin Luther King holiday

March 13-24: Spring break

March 20-24: Snow make-up days

April 14: Good Friday

May 31: Last student day

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.