With the start of school just over a month away, city school officials are trying to get as many 4-year-olds as possible enrolled in one of its free universal prekindergarten programs.
Maureen Ingham, the teacher on special assignment who administers the program, said more than 400 children have been enrolled, but district officials estimate that 120 to 200 more children in the district may be eligible.
It's important for parents of those children to enroll them, Ingham said, so the 4-year-olds are prepared to handle kindergarten, which has become much more demanding over the past decade.
"We will turn no student down as long as they are 4 years old on or before December 1," Ingham said. She said money is not a problem, thanks to state lawmakers and Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer.
"We are getting $1,963,000 in universal prekindergarten aid this year from the state," she said.
That's $376,000 more than last year, said James J. Ingrasci, district business administrator. That increases the number of pupils who can be served.
"We have 21 pre-k classrooms across the district in our eight elementary schools along with four run by our community partners," Ingham said.
Those partners are the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, at the Doris W. Jones Center on Ninth Street and at the Packard Court Community Center; the Health Association of Niagara County, at the Trott Access Center, 11th Street and Portage Road, and at Hyde Park Elementary School.
The district hopes to add a 22nd classroom at St. John de LaSalle School on Buffalo Avenue.
All the classrooms will be staffed with state certified teachers.
"The big push is that we get out there and do whatever we can to try and make sure all 4-year-olds are in some sort of program," Ingham said. "That's our goal."
The program is designed to expose 4-year-olds to reading, writing and socialization that will be important preparation work for kindergarten.
"It can be a problem," Ingham said, "if they have never worked in a group, have never had to share, have never learned how to follow directions. Those are things that preschool helps set the pace for these children. We feel it's critical that we get our children early on into an educational setting."
Pre-k applications can be obtained by contacting any city elementary school, the housing authority or health association; stopping at the Board of Education building, Sixth Street and Walnut Avenue; or by calling 286-4190.