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Children Get a Jump Start at School

October 06, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — With 20 pairs of eyes and two cameras aimed at him, Edward Willis flashed a killer smile and headed for the crayon table.

There he began what school officials believe is an important new movement in education--beginning kindergarten at age 4 instead of 5. The extra year is designed to help youngsters succeed later in life.

As Pasadena school officials, news photographers and anxious parents gathered in a bright room at Jackson Elementary School on Monday morning, Edward got right to the point, coloring a headband that had his name in back and a blue bear in front.

He was one of 330 4-year-olds recruited for the new program that began Monday in 11 of Pasadena Unified School District's 20 elementary schools. About 600 children will be enrolled for morning and afternoon classes when the other nine schools begin the program in February, school officials said.

At Hamilton School several miles east of Jackson, Jorge Dominguez zeroed in on the building block corner and ignored his father when he called goodby.

Juan Dominguez was delighted.

"He's been so confused," the father said in halting English. Jorge, he said, hears Spanish from his parents, but his older sisters speak English they learned in school and the little boy has difficulty sorting out the languages.

"I like my children to learn English," Dominguez said. "Now Jorge is happy and excited that he gets to learn."

Called "early intervention," the new kindergarten emphasizes English, math and reading preparation and provides health care and daily lunch for children from disadvantaged families, most of them minorities. There are computers for the children to use in every classroom.

Heralded as the first public school program of its kind in California, it is privately financed because state funding does not cover an additional year of kindergarten. Los Angeles philanthropist Richard Riordan and John and Dorothy Shea of Pasadena gave half of the $1.4 million to cover the first year's costs. They helped to raise the rest of the first year's money from other private sources and have pledged to keep the program going for three years.

More Stable Lives

Riordan said several studies and experimental programs have shown that children who are unprepared when they enter kindergarten at age 5 have continuing problems in school. Their dropout, crime and teen-age pregnancy rates are higher, he said, while those who learn English and early reading and math skills lead more stable and productive lives.

He and the Sheas gave their money to the Pasadena district in July because, Riordan said, "they had a program ready to go and we liked what we saw."

The district hired a credentialed teacher specializing in early childhood education and an assistant for each school. Some children are being taken to the schools in specially outfitted buses that have seat belts for the 4-year-olds.

Teachers Julie Titus of Jackson and Susan Sarnoff of Hamilton said the first day went smoothly, with few tears and no problems. All the children seemed ready and eager to learn, they said.

"Calls are coming in from districts all over the country, wanting to know about this," Assistant Supt. Robert Sampieri said.

But while gaining nationwide attention among educators, and although Pasadena has an estimated 2,000 children who might qualify for the program, local interest lagged until top district officials started announcing the new kindergarten at church services.

"We've been going on the road, hitting four churches in a day," said Wilbert Smith, chairman of the 20-member steering committee that helped shape the program.

At neighborhood meetings called to interest parents and recruit students, school officials attracted "only a few skeptics," Smith said. Bilingual pamphlets drew little response, but applications poured in after people learned about the program in church.

Pastor's Help

"We knew there were kids out there, but we couldn't get to them until we used the right vehicle," Smith said.

"People caught on to it right away," said Supt. Phillip Jordan, who estimates that he has been to at least 15 churches. "One pastor even turned the pulpit over to me for 25 minutes."

So many applications have come in that there is now a waiting list, and some children are being directed to local Head Start programs.

"A portion of Pasadena that is usually not aware is now aware," said Oscar Palmer, director of bilingual education. "We've had to shift gears real fast."

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