Youngest targeted to get off to a strong start

January 15, 2006|By KAREN HANNA

One warm day, not long after the start of some of their school careers, Rebecca Griffin playfully allowed her pint-sized students to correct her.

The sun is a star - "a bowl of fire and gas" - not a bowl of cheese, they said with a bit of prompting during a discussion of the weather.

At ages 4 and 5, the preschoolers seem light-years removed from academic concerns over standardized testing, but the class already is preparing for careers in reading, writing and arithmetic. The students at Bester Elementary School stand to benefit most if the school's improvement efforts are successful.


"What really matters to me is these kindergartners, first- and second-graders because we have got to get them where they need to be by the end of the year," Principal Kathy Stiles said. "If we don't, it's going to be the same cycle over and over again."

While Bester's pre-kindergarten program has seats for just 40 students, the kindergarten class is the school's largest. To accommodate the class, which now numbers 108 students, one kindergarten teacher was added during the fall - her class of 15 students meets in a modular classroom outside.

According to figures that Stiles provided Wednesday, 29 kindergartners are in math interventions. Of the 43 kindergartners who need extra help with reading skills, just 14 attended pre-kindergarten, Stiles said.

"I kind of would like to get another pre-K (class)," Stiles said. "That's when we really need to get the kids."

Gaps in student achievement among students of different racial and economic backgrounds are apparent even before children's formal schooling begins, a state report on kindergarten readiness indicates.

According to the report, "Children Entering School Ready to Learn: School Readiness Information for School Year, 2004-05," about 59 percent of Washington County students came to school exposed to the concepts they needed to be prepared to learn when they started kindergarten last year. Of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals because of family income, only one-third were prepared to learn about language and literacy, compared to 60 percent of students whose family income does not qualify for the aid.

According to the report, the percent of white students who are ready to learn about science is almost double the percent of black students who exhibit "scientific thinking" readiness - 36 percent to 19 percent, according to the report.

Just as the demands on students have increased, the expectations of what they should be able to do have been pushed down from one grade to the next, Griffin said.

That's forced a traditional focus on play out of the curriculum, she said.

Then and now

"That's pretty much what happened," Griffin said. "The curriculum keeps coming down, further and further down. That's why it's so important that we do get them ready for school, that we do try to narrow some of those gaps."

As one towheaded boy cried that he wanted to go home, students worked through an exercise identifying the day's date - Monday, Nov. 14 - and weather. They looked for titles in books and clapped out the syllables in the name of the month, "No-vem-ber."

One little boy even pointed out the word's beginning letter: "A dapital N," he said.

On Wednesday, several months later, groups of students practiced their cutting, pasting and coloring skills.

At one table, Griffin helped direct students who were creating a "Food Color Book." After they drew foods of particular colors - blue popsicles, brown chocolate cake - Griffin encouraged the children to "read" their books.

"Don't forget to put your name because you are the author and the illustrator," Griffin told them as they started the project.

According to kindergarten teacher Terri Mullican, who is in her 18th year with Washington County Public Schools, schools' priorities for young children have shifted from socialization to academics. For some students who are not developmentally ready, that can be stressful, she said. Most students, however, are up for the challenge, she said.

"They're so excited to learn to read, that's what they really want to do," Mullican said in a whisper after school.

On school day 67, 13 words including at, cat and bat hung from the kindergartners' word wall.

In the pre-kindergarten room Wednesday, Griffin said she would like students to be able to recognize numbers and identify the letters in their names by the end of the school year.

"I think next year, they'll be at more of an advantage than those kids coming to kindergarten who didn't have pre-K. Definitely," she said.

On the covers of their color books, some students scrawled their names in uncertain letters, while others still scribbled hieroglyphics of circles and lines. The towheaded boy wandered the room, as if lost.

As the day ended, Mullican commented she wished she had more time.

Introducing concepts

After a harried dismissal of zipping coats and straightening hats, Griffin said she believes her job is to introduce concepts. Whether the light bulb goes off this year or next, Griffin said she believes students benefit from as much early exposure to education as they can get.

"We do it whether they have the deep understanding of it or not," Griffin said. "Hopefully, by the end of the year, there's something that clicks ... Just to introduce it, just to introduce it, I think that's my job because by the time they get to kindergarten, it's like, oh man, there's just so much they have to know."

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