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Bertie’s More at Four program grows in popularity

ASKEWVILLE – Education is changing in Bertie County and it’s beginning at the earliest age.

Since 2003, Bertie County Schools have been operating a More at Four program which allows those children who have not had adequate daycare experience to learn a year before entering kindergarten.

That program has been expanded dramatically over the past two years with the addition of the Askewville More at Four and Preschool and the C.G. White (Powellsville) More at Four and Preschool. Combined, those two sites allow more than 160 four-year-olds to be educated in foundational areas such as letters, colors, shapes and numbers as well as learning to develop positive relationships with peers and teachers.

The More at Four program is available to children who are four years old by August 31 of the school year, will be entering kindergarten the following year and are at-risk for poor school outcomes.

Those at-risk factors include low income, limited English proficiency, identified disabilities, chronic health condition or who have development or educational needs.

More at Four began with just 53 slots countywide and had single classroom locations at Aulander Elementary School, West Bertie Elementary School, Windsor Elementary School and Colerain Elementary School.

“It remained that way until the 2007-08 academic year when we wrote an enhancement grant asking for the state to allot more slots so we could serve more at-risk four-year olds,” said Bertie County Schools Federal Programs Director Connie Richardson. “After it was approved, we recruited students through flyers, churches and civic organizations.”

Last January the program had the opportunity to move into a central location – the former C.G. White High School in Powellsville – thanks to More at Four Ready start-up funds.

“At that time, we had already received enough students who were not served or who were underserved to open two classrooms,” Richardson explained. “Underserved students are those who may have been in a daycare setting, but the star rating was low.”

The centralized location had many advantages such as allowing all of the younger students to be in one location and teachers working together in a single setting.

It had one drawback, however, which was recognized quickly by Richardson. That drawback was the length of bus rides.

“Bertie County is so large that some students were on the bus for an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes,” Richardson said. “That is too long for four-year-olds to travel.”

Richardson had already begun developing a plan in her mind when she unexpectedly got an opportunity to reveal her ideas publicly.

“It was a dream I had pondered – the advantages of opening another site – when at a school board meeting one night (Bertie Board of Education member)Mrs. (Emma) Johnson asked about my dream,” Richardson said. “I took that opportunity to let the board know how much we needed a second site.

“The board discussed it, pondered it and saw the advantage for the children,” Richardson continued. “They gave us the go-ahead and it has been just wonderful.”

That additional site was at Askewville, a school site that was no longer in operation, but was in excellent shape to have students return.

The Askewville site now serves the communities of Askewville, Windsor, Merry Hill and Indian Woods. The C.G. White site continues in operation and serves students in Aulander, Lewiston Woodville, Roxobel, Kelford, Colerain and Powellsville.

“Now we have a situation where every bus ride is less than an hour for our students,” Richardson said.

She also said the Askewville site allowed the county to serve more students.

“We are able to serve more children because some parents would not have their children come to C.G. White because of the distance,” Richardson said. “We are also getting great support from the community and more parental involvement.”

The More at Four program in Bertie County is one of the ways the district is using to try to make a definitive change in educating students. The effort is to teach students early and thereby allow them to have a better start when they enter kindergarten.

“Some students come to us never having been in a preschool readiness program,” Richardson said. “They have little knowledge about sitting down, listening, self-discipline, interacting with peers or respect for one another.

“Sometimes their communication skills are low as well,” she added. “We are able to teach them so they gain those types of skills.”

Ann Eure and Josephine Gatling, who are working at the Askewville site, have been with More at Four since the program began. Both said they were excited about what children are able to learn.

“I like the program. I like being able to expand children’s knowledge,” Eure said. “I am able to expand on things as they happen.

“More at Four gets them ready for kindergarten,” she added. “They learn how to cooperate, color, draw and write their name.”

When asked what she liked about the program, Gatling said, “everything.”

“I like the way it is catered for the kids. It gives them the opportunity to expand their knowledge. I love it,” Gatling noted.

At C.G. White’s More at Four and Preschool site is Francis Rankins, who has also been involved in More at Four since its inception.

“I like the children,” she said. “I like this age. The fact that you can get to them at this stage of their learning in public schools makes it feel like you can be a part of the growth process.

“They are excited about learning, so proud of themselves, when they accomplish something,” she added. “They have the desire.”

Another big fan of the program is Shirley Holloman, who serves as the administrative assistant for More at Four.

“What makes me like it so much is you can see how it benefits children so much,” Holloman said.

She also said her communication with parents makes her know how beneficial More at Four is.

“I get a lot of calls from parents,” she said. “I enjoy the fact that people really want to get their children in.

“I also like the way it gets children ready for kindergarten,” Holloman added. “It teaches them so much in the way of social skills to prepare them.”

One of the keys for success for the More at Four program is an experienced, dedicated staff, according to Richardson.

“All of our teachers at More at Four have a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “Almost every one had Birth through Kindergarten certification. Our teachers are well-trained.

“Also, all of our teacher assistants have met the qualifications for No Child Left Behind,” she added.

The staff also has a great love for their task.

“I like working with little children,” Eure said. “I like to see the lights go on in their eyes when they learn something.”

The children also make More at Four a joy, Richardson said.

“The children are very comfortable at our two sites,” she insisted. “We have very few if any discipline problems. I think having them in a setting with only four or five year olds is an advantage.”

The children likely take their cue from the staff members who also love the program.

“I love More at Four,” Gatling said. “I love those little people.”