CONYERS - Parents, school staff and school system officials gathered Friday morning to celebrate a new initiative in Rockdale County Public Schools, the Early Learning Center at the Rockdale Career Academy.
The center, which opened a couple of weeks before the new school year started, held a ribbon-cutting and grand-opening ceremony to show off some of the work the students already have completed this school year, complete with a song that included sign language.
"This is truly a special opportunity," RCPS superintendent Samuel King said during the ceremony.
He said research shows that learning disparities and gaps in performance occur before students enter the classroom. By allowing students, especially those in lower socioeconomic groups, in a formal classroom setting early on, King hopes to close those gaps.
Fifty-six students are enrolled in the program that serves moderate- to low-income families who may not be able to provide their 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children with a formal school setting before starting prekindergarten or kindergarten.
"We are simply scratching the surface with (the current enrollment)," King said. "This is going to grow."
The three-year planning came to fruition when RCPS received $238,000 in federal grant money and more than $230,000 from Rockdale County's United Way earlier this year.
"This has been a true community partnership ... and community effort," said Rich Autry, assistant superintendent for support services at RCPS.
Some funding also helps support other early learning initiatives in the county, including working with parents of children who are 6 months old or 2 years old, Autry said.
"We must reach lower into the early learning levels ... so they can enter (school) on a level playing field," King said. "It's closing the achievement gap."
Center Director Jesseca Causey said the children already have accomplished a lot in the past six weeks of class - they have made academic and social gains and have learned sign language and Spanish, among other skills, through the center's creative curriculum.
The children are adjusting well to their new environment, Causey said.
"We try to make it a very rich environment and very homey," she said. "The children truly enjoy school."
One child, Luis Garibay, enjoys it so much that he wears his Spider-Man backpack all day long.
Causey and her staff - which includes five teachers, in addition to the 15 high school interns who help assist in the class on a rotating basis - meet each week to discuss the kids and future plans for the program.
"We are so excited about where we are, what we're doing and what this is going to become," King said.
Michelle Floyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.