Hands drenched in glue, face spotted with bright purple, blue and orange, 4-year-old Jamie Tombling didn't notice her schoolmates dancing and playing around her. She was on a mission.
"I am making a horse," she said, dumping food coloring into a pile of sand. "I like a horse; all the time I like a horse."
Jamie and her 16 classmates are enrolled in the Centralia School District's new preschool program, one of the only district-run preschools in the county.
"There are very few around where the district actually runs it," said preschool supervisor Kathleen Jekerle. Most, she said, receive funding from the state and are regulated by an outside agency.
But instead of relinquishing control, the Centralia School District took $26,000 from a special reserve and went into the preschool business.
In a corner of Buena Terra Elementary School, a former classroom was converted into a cheery room for toddlers. The preschool is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is completely self-supporting. Parents pay tuition and have the option of choosing between full- and half-day attendance.
The purpose of opening the schoolhouse doors to younger children was to help fill the gap in available child care in the community and to get children on the "right track," said Barbara Sanchez, administrator of special services. "It is an attempt to make sure kids are prepared before they come to school," she said.
Children are taught the skills necessary to enter kindergarten, but that does not mean sitting behind desks or learning multiplication tables, said Sharon Packard, one of the two full-time teachers. Rather, children are given a choice of activities, all of which are subtly tied to learning skills. To an unknowing toddler, though, they seem like play.
District officials are discussing adding more classrooms at different schools and eventually even providing infant care. The district also is considering opening bilingual preschools in the future.
For now, the main goal is building up the clientele--the school will hold 24 students--and preparing the 17 children in the program for the future, Jekerle said.
"By the time they leave here, we want them to have some successful experiences to feel good about so they will be ready for the tough world of kindergarten," she said.