DALTON, Ga. — Six weeks ago, most of the 4- and 5-year-olds in Yebel Garcia's summer pre-k class couldn't understand English.
Some children also couldn't hold a pencil, open a milk carton or be led in line, Garcia said.
But on Wednesday, girls in sparkly dresses and boys in vests with ties, slacks and striped shirts walked across the stage of Blue Ridge School to receive a certificate showing they completed the six-week program.
Proud parents and brothers and sisters sat in the audience, videoing their kids singing in English, dancing and reciting parts of storybooks.
Dalton Public Schools completed its third summer pre-k program, graduating 32 children who didn't have the chance to attend one of the pre-k classes last school year.
School officials said the students, who come from low-income families, now are prepared to enter English-only kindergarten classes in the fall. Most can write their name and play with their peers, share and understand basic concepts, Garcia said.
Because of limited space in pre-k classes during the school year, some children stay on waiting lists. Others struggle through the year and need the extra six weeks to get ready for kindergarten, she said.
Parents said they are amazed at the difference in their children and are relieved of some of the pressures that come with the first school experience.
When Viry Apodaca dropped her daughter off at her class the first day of the summer program, the little girl clung to her mother and cried. But over time, Apodaca noticed her daughter could count and was chatting about her new friends.
"She'll be ready for kindergarten," Apodaca said
Another feature of the program -- which is paid for by a $40,000 grant -- allows a coach to hold workshops for parents, teaching nutrition and computer skills, said Rhonda Hayes, an assistant superintendent for Dalton schools.
One parent, who attended every workshop, said he benefited from the classes, which help prepare parents to deal with everyday stresses.
Juan Zablah, whose daughter was in the program, said he and his wife work opposite shifts and are always home at different times, so the class helped them realize they had been overwhelmed.
Officials say the workshops are one of the best parts of the program because they get the family involved.
"It's not just for the children, it's for the whole family," Garcia said.
And teachers hope they will be able to continue the summer program next year. Hayes said officials must apply for another grant to continue. But she said she is hopeful because of the benefits it offers the children.
Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...