FORT JACKSON, SC -- It was a bittersweet moment for Heather Norman and her husband, 1st Sgt. Christopher Norman, as they watched their little girl don her cap and gown last Friday.

Mom wiped away tears, and Dad took photos as their daughter received her diploma and flipped her tassel before marching down the aisle of the Main Post Chapel to the traditional tune of "Pomp and Circumstance."

Though most graduations mark the end of a long educational road, this commencement served as a rite of passage for their daughter, Cheyanne, who at 4 years old, is just beginning her academic career.

"It makes me proud," Norman said of her "baby." "But it also makes me sad because she's growing up."

Cheyanne, was one among 46 preschoolers who celebrated being the first graduating class of Fort Jackson's Strong Beginnings, a program that bridges preschool and kindergarten - preparing youngsters for their future ventures in elementary school.

This new Armywide preparatory class, instructed by certified Child, Youth and School Services staff, is offered to children who will be 4 by Sept. 1 and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten the following school year.

It's based on The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, which brings science and technology into the classroom, as well as language arts, math and more.

Instructor Paulette Keith said the curriculum helps tykes learn letter sounds, how to spell words and get a head start on reading. The students even learn Spanish and work on computers.

"Once upon a time, children would go to kindergarten barely knowing their ABCs," Keith said. "Now we have children here who can work a computer better than me.

"The world is changing, so we're trying to prepare our children for those changes," she said.

Keith, who has worked at Fort Jackson's child development center for 24 years, said she and her fellow Strong Beginnings instructors are teaching things similar to what they have always taught, just in different ways and under a more structured program.

"Now we can use dittos, much like teachers use in kindergarten," Keith said. "Before we couldn't use a reward system. Now we can use things like stickers as incentives. And you know with children, all you have to do is say 'sticker,' and they're on it."

The curriculum allows for more teaching methods to be used to help make these young scholars more self-sufficient in and out of the classroom, she said.

"Some of these children have never learned how to catch a ball," she said. "For a lot of children, when they don't know how to catch or throw a ball, they start to feel inferior. Now we prepare them for simple things like how to throw a ball or how to catch a ball, running bases, even obstacle courses."

Lead instructor Debra Asberry said the most important aspect of the program is that the children are taught basic social skills, which will help them adapt quicker and easier to their new school environments when they enter kindergarten in the fall.

"Now they've been exposed to kindergarten etiquette," Asberry said. "They're used to sitting quietly, raising hands and walking down the halls in straight lines.
"It's amazing how far they've come," she said. "They've worked so hard."

The new graduates will participate in a summer boot camp at C.C. Pinckney Annex starting next week, where Asberry said they will become more familiar with the routines of elementary school, such as carrying trays and riding the bus to school.

For more information about the Strong Beginnings program, contact CYSS at 751-4865.