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Sollars Elementary School Sure Start teacher Ingrid Ahlberg helps 4-year-old Isaac Tereul with a Legos’ project recently.

Sollars Elementary School Sure Start teacher Ingrid Ahlberg helps 4-year-old Isaac Tereul with a Legos’ project recently. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Sollars Elementary School Sure Start teacher Ingrid Ahlberg helps 4-year-old Isaac Tereul with a Legos’ project recently.

Sollars Elementary School Sure Start teacher Ingrid Ahlberg helps 4-year-old Isaac Tereul with a Legos’ project recently. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Quinton Beach, 5, left, and Taylor Hill, 4, practice shaking hands during a Sure Start preschool class at Sollars Elementary School.

Quinton Beach, 5, left, and Taylor Hill, 4, practice shaking hands during a Sure Start preschool class at Sollars Elementary School. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Crystal Love is confident her 4-year-old daughter, Alex, is ready for kindergarten. In the past year, Alex has made great strides in recognizing her ABCs and numbers, and her verbal skills have blossomed.

Love credits the Sure Start preschool program at Cummings Elementary School — Alex’s first educational experience outside the home.

“It’s a great program. She loves it,” Love said.

Most U.S. military bases in mainland Japan, Okinawa and South Korea have Sure Start. (Camp Humphreys in South Korea will add a program this fall.) It’s modeled after Head Start, a stateside federal program to help prepare low-income, disadvantaged or “at-risk” children for kindergarten and beyond. The Department of Defense Education Activity established Sure Start in 1991 for families living and working at U.S. military installations overseas.

“The program addresses a specific preschool need — readiness,” said Charles Steitz, Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific spokesman. The free program serves more than 1,000 students in the Pacific who otherwise would not have access to a comprehensive full-day program, Steitz said.

It’s primarily for students with one or two parents in the enlisted ranks of E-1 to E-4.

“Children whose families don’t have the resources to provide them with enriched experiences before school are more at-risk for success in school,” said Ingrid Ahlberg, Sure Start teacher for Sollars Elementary School, also at Misawa Air Base.

The Sure Start classrooms, housed within DODDS schools, are designed to meet safety requirements for preschoolers and are filled with equipment to teach and entertain. A certified teacher trained in early childhood education leads the class in learning that’s incorporated into play.

Developmental progress is assessed three times a year. Lunches are subsidized and nutritional snacks are provided every two hours. Children receive medical, dental, health and special-needs screening. Parents must get involved.

While children of junior servicemembers get priority placement, other children are considered for the program based on at-risk factors, ranging from single-parent household to low birth weight. A child must turn 4 by Oct. 31 and be a command-sponsored dependent to be considered.

“We will always look at E-4 and below applicants first,” Ahlberg said. But “we do not operate on a first-come, first-served basis. We look at at-risk factors and take the children most at risk,” she said.

At Misawa, Sollars and Cummings elementary schools routinely seek and accept Sure Start applicants for a combined 36 slots, either for the coming school year or to replace children who depart mid-year due to a permanent change in station move.

There are plenty of applicants — 103 for the 2005-06 school year — but not always from the E-1 to E-4 families the program targets.

“I know they’re out there,” said Anne Cannon, Cummings’ Sure Start teacher. “I just don’t know why we’re not reaching them.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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