FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) Heading to kindergarten can be scary. One local program is working to turn the negative into a positive.

Kindergarten Countdown is designed to help prepare incoming kindergarteners with little to no prior pre-k experience, English Language Learners, and children who have been identified by school staff as being at-risk for falling behind their classmates. The four-week summer program focuses on building relationships between the teachers and the students, a step that organizers said is vital in order to see success.

Incoming kindergarten students participate in the Kindergarten Countdown program on Friday, July 14, 2017, at Waynedale Elementary School.

“The students knew the procedures and expectations and were champion leaders to our new enrollees in the fall,” explained Kelly Lobert, a Kindergarten Countdown teacher for the past four years. “As their teacher, I was able to personalize their instruction with precision. Our two parent events were attended by all parents and these parents remained involved throughout the school year attending Parent/Teacher Conferences and PTA sponsored events.”

Kindergarten Countdown started in 2013, serving 59 students in four classrooms. In its 5th year, the program will support seven classrooms and 120 students in six schools: Abbett Elementary, Brentwood Elementary, Fairfield Elementary, Forest Park Elementary, Southwick Elementary, and Waynedale Elementary.

All told, Kindergarten Countdown has served nearly 550 students.

The program includes a field trip to Eagle Marsh and parent days, as well as complimentary backpacks filled with school supplies, various health screenings and more.

Justin Arkkelin, principal of Waynedale Elementary, said the Kindergarten Countdown program has been positive because it creates a foundation for students to build from.

“Waynedale Elementary has seen nothing but positive results from our continued partnership with United Way,” said Arkkelin. “The parents of Kindergarten Countdown students get hands-on experiences through parent events and the program lays the foundation for ongoing positive home/school relationships!”

United Way of Allen County President and CEO David Nicole called the Kindergarten Countdown program a difference-maker for the community.

“It is wonderful to see the relationships being built through Kindergarten Countdown. Whether it is the teachers with their students and parents or the various community partners all working together to make this program possible,” said Nicole. “To live better we must LIVE UNITED and this program is a great example of our community coming together to make a difference in the lives of some of our youngest citizens.”