Boarding the bus helps kindergartners get ready in Howard County

Howard County Times
For soon-to-be Howard County kindergartners, "it's a big bus and some of them are scared"

Most of the children had never been on a school bus, but that was about to change.

"Remember," said Heidi Bertaux in a reassuring voice, "you're not going anywhere. It's just practice."

The group of 5-year-olds waited patiently in line as they each took their turn entering the bus.

"Big first step," said Bertaux. "Grab the hand rail. Good job!"

The activity came toward the end of the hour-long Kindergarten, Here We Come program led by Bertaux Aug. 6 at the Howard County Library System's Miller Branch, in Ellicott City. For some parents, it was the primary reason they signed up.

"The main thing was getting on the school bus," said Jennifer Judge, whose son, Zeke, will be riding a bus for the first time to Veterans Elementary when school opens Aug. 24. "It definitely will make it easier for him, and I think it will make him even more excited for the first day of school."

The library system, in partnership with the Howard County Public School System, has run kindergarten readiness series since 2003. The school bus element, which was suggested by Miller Branch manager Susan Stonesifer, started in 2006 and has been at all locations since 2008.

"It's a big bus and some of them are scared," said Tiffany Cammon, a Woodlawn Motor Coach employee who has been working at the library presentations for six years. "That's why we come out, to get them familiar with the bus and show them it's not as scary as it looks."

Cammon spoke to the children twice at the session last week at the Miller Branch, first in the room where Bertuax was teaching and then again when they were seated on the bus. She talked mostly about rules and safety.

"Sometimes it's better coming from the bus driver than the parent," said Amy Favinger, whose son, Jacob, will ride the bus to Centennial Lane Elementary with his sister, Andrea, a first-grader.

Suzanne Ludicke said that for her son, Jay, who will attend Fulton Elementary, riding the bus was "one of his fears. So the bus was such an important part of the program. Kids have been in classes. This was something new. He said the bus was fun."

The library system scheduled 24 Kindergarten, Here We Come sessions from Aug. 3-19. The first six were held at the Miller Branch, where Bertaux, a Children's Instructor and Research Specialist, has been leading the classes for four years.

"I try to present the material in a fun and engaging way that will help younger kids stay focused and yet still come to know a little of what to expect from a kindergarten class," said Bertaux. "I also stress appropriate classroom behaviors that they will need to be ready for, such as raising your hand to ask a question and not speaking over someone else."

Bertaux started her class by showing the children the proper way to sit on the floor and complimented them when they raised their hand. Behind the children were rows of chairs where their mothers, many of them having to contend with another sibling, sat and watched.

Melissa Villegas, whose daughter, Novali, will attend Northfield Elementary, was sitting in the front row holding her 6-week old daughter, Frieda.

"I think it helped get the pre-kindergarten jitters out," said Villegas of the class. "It took the edge off of starting kindergarten."

She added that the program provided "another positive experience building toward kindergarten."

Bertaux read from the book "My First Day in Kindergarten," played a recorded song to get the children to jump up and count and used cutout figures from the book "The Night Before Kindergarten" that were placed on the end of sticks and used inside a miniature theater.

She explained some of the things children will see on classroom bulletin boards and also what they can, and can't, bring to school.

"I think he enjoyed it a lot," said Favinger of her son, Jacob. "It was a happy, fun atmosphere. I think he feels a little more excited about kindergarten now."

Ludicke, a second-grade teacher at Clemens Crossing Elementary who held her 2-year-old daughter, Brooke, during the class, said she thought the program "was fantastic. It was very well organized."

She also complemented Bertaux, who has three grown children and is one of 12 Miller Branch staff members dedicated to programs for children.

"She was great," said Ludicke. "You can tell she has a lot of experience working with kids. She seemed like a natural teacher to me, which made the kids more comfortable."

The series is taught by different staff members at all six library branches, and not every class is the same.

"We try to follow the same guidelines, but each of our staff has the freedom to choose materials and activities that are appropriate," said Susan Morris, Early Childhood Education Specialist for the library system.

Lisa Davis, the Howard County Public School System's coordinator for early childhood programs, said that "parents seem to now consider this class a rite of passage as their child enters kindergarten. We appreciate this wonderful partnership with the library and know that the work they do with the young children and their families is definitely helping to improve school readiness across the county."

Davis said the county's 41 elementary schools will be home to approximately 3,700 kindergartens in the 2015-2016 school year, an increase of about 200 from last year. The county started phasing in all-day kindergarten in the 2004-2005 school year and all schools had it in 2007-2008. The county is scheduled to open its next elementary school in 2018 in Hanover next to Thomas Viaduct Middle School, which opened in 2014.

While Bertaux said her job allows her "to be silly, to dance, to enjoy life the way a child does for just a little while," she realizes how important the Kindergarten, Here We Come class is for both child and parent.

"Some parents want to know their child will fit in. This class becomes a good practice for that all-important first day," said Bertaux. "Others want to reassure their very shy child that they can do this, and it really will be OK. Some come for the bus visit, so that their child can experience one up-close in a safe way before having to board one on the first day of school. And many come for themselves, that first step in helping both parent and child to begin letting go."

Kindergarten, Here We Come sessions are scheduled through Aug. 19 at the Elkridge Branch, Glenwood Branch, Central Branch and Savage Branch. Contact library branches to register.

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