QUINCY -- Beth Schutte sits on the floor, surrounded by 4-year-olds working diligently to put together a Halloween-themed puzzle.
It's center time, part of the afternoon routine in Schutte's Head Start classroom at the Early Childhood and Family Center just after rest time.
Studying the picture on the box, they slowly build the puzzle, with Fiona Miller stopping to look for the right piece. "Armanii found it," Schutte said, and with Owen Schuckman holding another piece, she offers some advice to "turn it until it fits."
While several friends work on the puzzle, Elizabeth Slater leans against Schutte to "read" a book. "How do we read books when we can't read yet? We can tell the story from looking at the pictures," Schutte said.
"I like books," Elizabeth said.
Other youngsters make shapes out of plastic pieces, then set them over a light box while another group "cooks" in the classroom's kitchen.
Soon they all come together on the carpet while Schutte reads a book, "Alphabet Mystery," with the students reciting the alphabet while hearing about the adventures of little "X" who is part of Charlie's alphabet.
It's a busy time, and a full day, in the classroom, one of the full-day Head Start classrooms available this school year for the first time at ECFC.
A $175,279 grant from Head Start, a federally-funded income-based preschool program, allowed offering full-day classes which required adding two new classrooms and expanding the playground to accommodate more youngsters and incorporate a grassy play area.
"We have seven that are full day. We have seven that are double-session, so we have options for all kids," ECFC Director Julie Schuckman said.
It's a long time for a 4-year-old to be in school, Schuckman said, but the day is structured to best meet their needs.
"They do have down time. It's not all sit and listen to the teacher. There's high movement throughout the day to keep them engaged, and they also have a rest time," Schuckman said. "They're not required to sleep, but they are required to rest. They might be quietly looking at a book or doing a puzzle. If they want to lay down and go to sleep, they can."
Most important, more time in the classroom means more opportunity to build readiness skills in academics and beyond.
"It means being part of a group, being able to follow directions. The school district is working very hard on attendance, and that starts here working with both family and child," Schuckman said.
Teacher Cathy Allen piloted the all-day Head Start program three years ago at ECFC, and she wouldn't want to go back to teaching separate morning and afternoon classes.
"It's just so relaxed. You can take your time with kids that need extra help," Allen said. "It's worked out extremely well just in that you have the extra time, which I think is the best gift you can give any kid, your time."
Classroom activities focus on letter and number identification. "There's very little that goes on in our classroom that doesn't have to do with those two things," Allen said.
The longer day gives her time to take her students to the building's curriculum library to check out books for the classroom shelves or to try playing musical instruments acquired through another grant.
"The kids just seem to thrive on it," Allen said. "You can do projects and things you don't have time to do in a half-day session. It has worked out extremely well, better than I ever expected it could be."
Students also gain life skills in Head Start, and the added time only helps to hone those skills.
"We brush teeth. We sit and eat family-style meals, pass bowls around the table," Schutte said. ‘"I'm a big proponent of Head Start. It does a good job of modeling good behavior all across the board, not just academics."
Expanding the Head Start program maximized use of space at ECFC, which serves 530 students in the state's Preschool for All program, with special needs and in transitional kindergarten in 23 classrooms.
"We took up the last two rooms available to make classrooms," Schuckman said. "Now we're done. We have no more room. We're maximizing every bit of space."