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Pre-K Counts program is well received at Shaler Area

| Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, 3:03 p.m.
Ellie Smith (left) and Janessa Ruiz play at the dance and music station at the Pre-K Counts program on Friday, Sept. 9.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Ellie Smith (left) and Janessa Ruiz play at the dance and music station at the Pre-K Counts program on Friday, Sept. 9.
Jennifer Hesse's Pre-K class takes time to learn about good health procedures on Friday, Sept. 9.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Jennifer Hesse's Pre-K class takes time to learn about good health procedures on Friday, Sept. 9.
Noah Skillpa, left, and Kyrre Couey, both 4, play at the water and sand station on Friday, Sept. 9.
Noah Skillpa, left, and Kyrre Couey, both 4, play at the water and sand station on Friday, Sept. 9.
Paige Smith, 4, take some time to read during Jennifer Hesse Pre-K class on Friday, Sept. 9.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Paige Smith, 4, take some time to read during Jennifer Hesse Pre-K class on Friday, Sept. 9.
Paisley Heller and Pre-K Counts teacher Jennifer Hesse go over the letters in the alphabet.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Paisley Heller and Pre-K Counts teacher Jennifer Hesse go over the letters in the alphabet.

A new preschool program at the Shaler Area School District is making early childhood education more accessible to families who may need it most.

Pre-K Counts, a program funded through the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning, has offered a free pre-kindergarten program to qualifying families since February at two Shaler Area elementary schools, Reserve and Marzolf.

The program is offered through the Private Industry Council of Westmoreland/Fayette Inc. for up to 20 eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in each classroom, said Rene Despot, the Pre-K manager at PIC.

While Shaler Area provides the space, PIC provides the services and staff, Despot said.

Shaler Area applied for the Pre-K Counts program in conjunction with PIC, recognizing the need for early education, according to Bryan O'Black, the district's assistant superintendent of schools.

Children who attend “a standards-based pre-k program are better prepared and more successful to enter kindergarten. Additionally, students are exposed to foundational social and literacy skills at earlier levels,” O'Black said.

O'Black said preschoolers attend school from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for 180 days, following the majority of the school district calendar, and are served lunch and breakfast.

PIC operates a total of 11 prekindergarten classrooms, including sites in Westmoreland, Beaver and Fayette counties.

The Shaler Area classrooms are the only ones in Allegheny County, Despot said.

O'Black said families must meet certain criteria. Children must be between 3 and entry-age for kindergarten and must be considered at risk for school failure because of income or other factors, including whether the family is learning English or whether there are special needs.

The program has a waiting list, Despot said.

Because of state education regulations, only 20 spots can be at each elementary school in Shaler Area.

The classrooms have a 20 to 2 ratio of students to teachers and aides. All the classrooms have early childhood-certified teaching staff, Despot said.

Corri Scott is a certified classroom supervisor and educator at the Reserve Elementary prekindergarten.

“I am so impressed with them already,” Scott said of the students. “They are getting along so well and learning routines daily, so that they can have a smooth transition to kindergarten next year.”

The Shaler Area classrooms are updated with state-of-the-art technology and other features, O'Black said. Despot said non-district students can apply to the program at the Shaler Area schools, but get less preference.

Scott said parents seem to appreciate that the program is available in their community, there has been positive feedback.

“The children are smart, funny and a joy to be with every day,” Scott said.

Natalie Beneviat is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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