Wide-eyed youngsters stared up at teachers and gawked through classroom hallways at the International Academy at Blue Ridge Elementary on Monday. Some eyes were red from crying — separation anxiety from leaving their parents for the first time.

Approximately 250 pre-kindergarten students got an initial taste of structured education during the first day of the “Little Bloomers” pre-K summer program.

“It was chaotic and crazy because we had a big influx of kids with no paperwork for the site they were to attend. So we had no prior notification on them. But it was a really good, well-behaved group of kids,” said Janet Johnson, a kindergarten teacher at Brookwood Elementary who is the lead teacher at the city’s International Academy site.

The city-county program uses three sites. Approximately 110 city students attended at the International Academy on Monday. Another 140 county students were served in four classes at Pleasant Grove Elementary and two classrooms at Dug Gap Elementary. It was the first time most had been in a school setting, and many spoke only Spanish. Bilingual 4- and 5-year-olds helped translate.

“Other than working out logistics, students were ready to be here and eager to learn,” Johnson said.

However, some parents found it difficult to leave children with strangers for the first time.

“One parent left and his boy later stopped crying,” Johnson said. “But then, later in the day, daddy came back. Some parents stayed all day. But from the looks on most students’ faces, they were happy to be here, and each day gets a little better.”

The program teaches students all the basics — from letters of the alphabet, shapes and number counting to proper school behavior, including how to use a public toilet. The goal is to level the playing field for students who don’t otherwise have access to a pre-K program.

In its second year, the program hoped to serve as many as 400 students on a $200,000 budget donated by local businesses, governments and individuals — a budget just $30,000 more than last year, thanks to cutting out transportation. But Dalton Public Schools officials decided to go ahead and provide bus service to their students to try to keep enrollment numbers high.

“(Superintendent) Dr. (Orval) Porter came through because he felt strongly we wouldn’t have people come without transportation,” Johnson said.

Maria Khote, the resource coordinator for the program, is one of many bilingual teachers involved.

“We learned from last year, but today we dealt with paperwork,” Khote said. “Now, the families know which location their children should attend; tomorrow, we have to teach the students the importance of attendance.”

Children asked to participate in the program are identified by kindergarten pre-registration tests that all students take when being enrolled for the fall. Last year, 117 “Little Bloomers” taking the pre-test scored 0-to-10 out of 53 possible points, but only one student scored that low after attending the program.

Only 12 percent of the students who started the program scored 21 or higher, but 78 percent scored that highly on post-tests.

Richard Knox is director of the program. Earny Miller is lead teacher at the Pleasant Grove site, and Dana Holloway is lead teacher at Dug Gap.

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