Like most parents, Johnna Kirkland is a little anxious about her son’s first day of school.
And Kirkland works at Wilson Elementary School in northwest Oklahoma City, where 4-year-old Cooper Stephens will attend prekindergarten starting Monday.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking to send your child out into the world, even if he’s in the same building,” she said Thursday. “I’m nervous, but at the same time he’s going to be with teachers I know so that softens the blow a little.”
For the first time, Oklahoma City Public Schools is offering all-day prekindergarten at all 55 elementary schools.
Officials are expecting as many as 3,500 prekindergartners come Monday, when the classes are expanded from two and one-half hours to six and one-half hours.
The district has been offering prekindergarten classes since 1983. The program, however, didn’t take off until the MAPS for Kids school construction and renovation project added additional classroom space districtwide.
“All day makes a huge difference for those children who are under-resourced,” said Susan Bumgarner, a prekindergarten teacher at Wilson. “It certainly doesn’t hurt the children who are not under-resourced, either.”
Heronville Elementary School on the city’s southwest side is bracing for as many as 140 4-year-olds. By law, there is a 20-child limit per classroom. At least one teacher in each room must be certified in early childhood education.
“These kids are in a great environment,” said Pam Hibbs, the district’s director of early childhood education. “They’re building vocabulary along with pre-writing skills and pre-math skills. We have fewer children showing up in the at-risk category for reading when they reach kindergarten.”
Hibbs said children enrolled in prekindergarten are better readers and tend to graduate from high school, own their own homes and stay out of trouble.
While they’re learning, 4-year-olds also will be interacting with each other and learning valuable social and emotional skills.
“Every bit of what’s going on in a classroom is presented in a manner of play as they learn,” she said. “It feels like play to them, which makes it a good classroom.”
Bumgarner has taught 4-year-olds for two decades. Last year, she taught two classes — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. She, too, will have to adjust to a longer day.
Beginning Monday, prekindergartners will eat breakfast and lunch at school and will have more time to play outside. At Wilson, there will be a designated “quiet time” when children can read or listen to music.
Wilson students are taught with the help of music, visual arts and drama, Bumgarner said.
“Children learn through all their senses,” she said. “We need things that are essentially play for them to learn. Painting, acting, dancing, singing and building things — those are all good ways for children to learn.”
Experience has taught Bumgarner how to reassure anxious parents and comfort children on the first day of school.
“I say, ‘If your child is having trouble I will get in touch with you,’” she said. “I want the parent to know I don’t want their child unduly distressed.
“I also help the parent learn to leave the room on the first day.”