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Chapel Hill Eyes School For 3-Year-Olds

Posted November 13, 2006

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— A child development group is pushing Chapel Hill-Carrboro school leaders to develop an elementary school where students would start at age 3.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute said that early education is crucial for children. The FirstSchool program, which would carry students from age 3 through fifth grade, would use Seawell Elementary as a prototype school.

"Their interest is in getting people to consider educating 3- and 4-year-olds in public school as the norm," said Neil Pedersen, superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. "And we're fully supportive of promoting higher-quality preschool experiences."

School systems in Miami, Chicago and as close as Hillsborough have also shown interest.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school leaders will consider the proposal again this week. Parents and teachers balked at first when planners asked that the district build a school on university-owned land. That school would have taught students through second grade before shipping students to another elementary program.

But teachers and parents asked that students stay at one school from the early start through fifth grade.

Staffing and money remains a problem. FirstSchool planners have been working with a $2 million grant and have another $1.6 million set aside to plan construction. But there is no money to build, staff or train teachers for the school

"These are district schools. Not ours," said Sharon Ritchie, co-director of the FirstSchool project. "We're not interested in coming in and peopling schools with our own staff. We're just trying to provide guidance."

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