WOLCOTTVILLE — Things can get a little noisy in Kalli Gulley’s classroom.

No sooner does story time come to an end then the 20 children in her classroom jump up and dash towards tables where the day’s art lessons are ready to begin. As they prepare to paint, to model clay and to draw, the room is suddenly filled with the sounds of little voices excitedly talking to one another.

Gulley said she’s happy to hear her kids chatting.

“I know it’s loud,” she said, “but when they’re talking, they’re learning from each other.”

Welcome to preschool.

The Lakeland School Corp. launched two new preschool programs this year, one in a classroom at the former Lima-Brighton Elementary School building in Howe, and the other at the former Wolcott Mills Elementary School building in Wolcottville. Both programs, said Eva Merkel, Lakeland’s superintendent, are exceeding expectations.

“The kids are happy, the parents are happy, the teachers are happy. It’s great,” she said. “Just seeing the progress our kids have made, being attentive and doing what they need to, from day one until now is great.”

Gulley is a former kindergarten teacher. She taught at Wolcott Mills for seven years before being offered a chance to be the new preschool program teacher at her former school. Merkel said Gulley jumped at the chance.

Gulley said that the difference between 3- and 4-year olds and kindergarten students is huge.

“There’s a huge gap between 3 years and 5 years,” she explained. “Our goal is to get these kids ready to walk into a kindergarten room, so that they go in knowing how to act in school, knowing how to treat others, make friends and sit and listen to a story. We have academic goals too. We want to learn the alphabet and numbers, but we really want them to have those social skills to be ready for kindergarten.”

Every moment of every day is carefully planned out and carefully orchestrated. Both preschool teachers work with a paraprofessionals. Teachers try to build enough flexibility into each day to allow them to have some one-on-one time with each child.

Forty children are enrolled in the two programs, 20 at each school. Several children are still on a waiting list in case a slot opens up. Parents pay $100 a week for a full-time student, and $50 a week to attend half days. Children arrive at the schools about 8:30 a.m. and full-time students stay until 2:30 p.m. Most of the children attending the preschool program are full-time students.

The bulk of the learning that goes on in a preschool setting is helping children learn how to behave in a school setting, Merkel said.

“They learn how to work as part of a group setting with other students in an academic setting, they learn about structured play, they learn the days of the week and the alphabet,” she said. “All of those are baby steps toward kindergarten.”

Merkel said Lakeland is already looking into whether the program can be expanded next year to include a preschool program at the primary school in LaGrange.

While Merkel said Lakeland, like other school systems around the state, still face the problems of a decreasing student population, the need for a good preschool program isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I think preschool is going to be in our future,” she said. “This is important because it lays the foundation for what students need to do pre-K and beyond. The earlier they are exposed to academics, the more successful they are later on.”

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