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LeCandis Pettway started school on Tuesday -- at age 13 months.

And she's hardly the baby of the class.

Samira Ladd is 5 months old, and A'Kela Bowden recently celebrated her first birthday.

Children too young to talk or walk -- or even crawl -- are attending class with their parents at Buffalo's School 90 so they can count, speak, color and socialize at grade level when they enter prekindergarten at age 4.

There is no minimum age requirement at this federally funded Even Start program. It is, in effect, preprekindergarten for economically disadvantaged youngsters from infancy to age 3.

"It starts now," said Maxine Baskervill, program coordinator. "The longer we delay, the longer we put off their future success."

The $225,000 program began in January at School 90, an early childhood center in the city's Fillmore-Genesee section, because a majority of prekindergarten students there are behind academically, even before their first day of school.

"These are kids who don't even know their names," said Lois Johnson, School 90 principal. "For the first years of their lives, they've been called nicknames. They don't have a clue what's red, brown or blue."

Ms. Johnson attributes those shortcomings to poverty, broken homes and parents with limited education and parenting skills.

On Tuesday, about 10 Even Start youngsters sang, exercised, painted, worked on crafts or were read to by their mothers.

"It's basic stuff," Ms. Johnson said. "Kids in the suburbs would know all this. Why should it be any different for city kids?"

Some neighborhood parents were a bit startled to learn that their infants or toddlers were eligible to attend school.

"I thought it was very unusual, but I felt the experience would be good for the baby," said Deborah Smith, Samira Ladd's foster mother. "It's giving her the experience of being around other kids."

The Even Start program, cosponsored at School 90 by Bethel Head Start, began nationally in 1989, and now serves 51,000 children and 40,000 adults in 637 programs across the country. In Buffalo, it also operates at Buffalo's Harbor Heights Elementary School, 425 South Park Ave.

About 35 youngsters participate in the two local programs, which have been expanding.

Unlike day-care programs, parents are required to participate in class daily. In addition, aides visit participating families once a week to work on child-care skills, and parents are required to further their own education.

Chaneil Brown, the mother of LeCandis Pettway, is using Even Start computers to improve her technological skills. Other parents are seeking high school equivalency diplomas, learning English as a second language or taking vocational training.

"We're trying to empower parents to be the first teachers," Ms. Baskervill said.

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