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Toddlers Could Get An Earlier Start With Schooling

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Three- and 4-year olds could soon become regulars in the classroom. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board is considering a pilot program that could become a national model for education.

The plan calls for Seawell Elementary School to team up with UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Across the country, more than 1 million toddlers currently get their preschooling in public schools. The numbers are growing, and some educators believe changes in the system need to be made now.

"We did an 11-state study that found quality is not where we needed it to be," said Sharon Ritchie, co-director of FirstSchool and a scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

The program's goal is to bridge the gap between pre-kindergarten classes and traditional elementary school. Ritchie said that often the two segments operate independently, and as a result, learning is not a continuous flow.

"We need to have both sides learn the other side, to put a developmental lens on content and integrate more content into early childhood," she said.

The concept, though, is not without its challenges and added costs.

"We'd certainly have to hire new teachers, and there's a proposal to on the table to build a building and that building would be used by Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools with FirstSchool," said Dr. Rodney Trice, executive director for instruction and curriculum in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Ritchie said that when many parents hear about 3-year-olds in public school, they picture them sitting at desks with pen and pencil at the ready. She insists that is not what FirstSchool is all about.

Ritchie said the institute would work with the school system to bring more educational value to preschool in hopes of shaping a more positive future. The school board still needs to approve the partnership, however.

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