David Gentile started pre- kindergarten at Dunston Primary in North Charleston this past fall, and he still wakes up wanting to go to school.

New pre-kindergarten classes

Charleston County School District will open eight new pre-kindergarten classrooms this month. Priority will be given to children who demonstrate academic and developmental needs.

For more information on how to apply, call 843-628-1131 or email childdevelopment@charleston.k12.sc.us. Applications also are available on the school district's website: www.ccsdschools.com.

The new classes will be held at:

Charleston Progressive Academy

Lambs Elementary

North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary (two new classes)

James B. Edwards Elementary

Pepperhill Elementary

Springfield Elementary

Whitesides Elementary

The district also is continuing to enroll students in child development classes at: Garrett Academy, Jane Edwards Elementary, Dunston Primary, and St. James-Santee Elementary.

Charleston County School District

He's starting to read, and his mother, Wendy, is amazed at how much he's learned this year.

"He loves it," she said. "It makes me happy."

Charleston County school leaders say pre-kindergarten classes are critical to providing children the academic and social skills they need to be prepared for kindergarten and beyond.

They've put an emphasis on expanding their early childhood education offerings, and eight new pre-kindergarten classes will open to 4-year-olds this month. Those are in addition to the five new classes that opened in fall 2013.

"It was like a godsend for us to have this opportunity come open," said Lona Pounder, principal of Whitesides Elementary, which is one of the schools that will house a new pre-kindergarten class. "It means more opportunities for children to be successful at an early age. When you want all children to read on grade level by third grade, this is where you need to start."

This will be the school's third pre-kindergarten class, but that still won't be enough to accommodate all of the children who will enroll in its kindergarten, she said. Elementary teachers want 4-year-olds to be in an educational environment; it puts students on equal footing for kindergarten and gives them a good foundation for the future, she said.

Officials initially planned to open 10 classes mid-year, but they scaled back based on which schools had waiting lists and students willing to enroll as soon as possible, as well as facilities that could be made ready. An additional six classes will open in August 2014 at James B. Edwards Elementary. The expansion will cost up to $650,000, which was approved as part of the current school year's budget.

South Carolina has considered proposals to offer voluntary pre-kindergarten classes for all 4-year-olds, but those haven't been embraced by lawmakers. The state spent about $35.7 million to serve more than 29,000 pre-kindergartners in 2012, and the state ranked 39th nationally for its pre-K spending, according to a report from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

During the past year, Charleston has had a push from residents to expand its early childhood classes, and that effort has been led by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a group of 22 diverse congregations united in addressing community problems.

During the 2012-13 school year, Charleston screened 2,260 4-year-olds to determine the lowest scorers who most needed pre-kindergarten classes.

More than 1,600 students were enrolled last year in mostly full-day programs, and nearly three-fourths of those children were low-income.

In addition to opening new classes, district officials also have been making a push to fill under-enrolled classes at Dunston Primary, St. James-Santee Elementary, Jane Edwards Elementary and Garrett Academy.

Dunston Primary offers four pre-kindergarten classes, but it hadn't reached its capacity of 20 students per class before winter break. It's the first year they haven't had a waiting list, and Principal Janice Malone wasn't sure why. Although the school's preference was to serve at-risk students, it will accept others when it has space, she said.

"We're continuing to get the word out," she said. "The socialization is so important, and . (the classes) help to enhance (children's) vocabulary and imagination and learning."

Some Charleston County School Board members questioned at a November board meeting the rationale behind which schools would be receiving more pre-kindergarten slots. Officials said they reached out to more than 200 students on schools' waiting lists to find out who would be able to enroll when the classes opened, and that was a key factor in deciding where the new classes would go.

School Superintendent Nancy McGinley pointed out that although some of those schools, such as Whitesides Elementary or James B. Edwards Elementary, weren't technically considered low-income or Title 1, they still had significant percentages of high-poverty students who would benefit from the classes.

"It's critical that they receive these services," she said.