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Earlier Dropout Prevention: Georgia's Targeted K-1 Program Goes Statewide

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As part of a broader effort to curb high dropout rates, the Georgia legislature has committed $20 million to offer smaller classes, more hands-on learning, and increased interaction between parents and teachers for children who are performing below standard.

The "Special Instructional Assistance Program" will provide kindergarten and 1st-grade pupils with more opportunities to learn through play, conversation, and exploration, while training staff and parents about appropriate teaching practices for young children.

Some states in recent years have devoted resources to lowering class sizes in the early grades, and hands-on learning and parent involvement are the hallmarks of high-quality preschool programs, experts say.

But the Georgia program is believed to be among the most comprehensive statewide efforts to integrate those concepts into the elementary-school curriculum.

"There is nothing in this program that has not been in the research for 20 years. There is nothing fancy or glitzy about it," said Diane Cousineau, a legislative program analyst for the state House. "We're just saying this is what a good early-childhood program should be."

Although the program was mandated under a 1985 education-reform law, a legislative committee studying high-school completion rates "pushed for full implementation" in the last legislative session, Ms. Cousineau said. The program, she noted, "fits in with the priorities" of State Superintendent of Schools Werner Rogers, who has placed dropout-prevention efforts high on his agenda.

The program, which is expected to serve 125 to 130 of the state's 186 school systems, has been pilot tested in 17 school systems for the last two years. The legislature appropriated funds to expand the program last spring, and the state board of education established guidelines in June.

The s.i.a. is slated to expand by one grade a year through 5th grade, with pilot schools extending their programs into 2nd grade this year.

Although early test results are inconclusive, many pilot schools have reported strong gains--even among pupils who "might have been considered for retention had s.i.a. not existed," said Sharon Meinhardt, the state education department's early-childhood education coordinator.

"The greatest gains have been in emotional and social areas of growth," said Richard Pullen, a kindergarten teacher at the C.W. Hill Elementary School in Atlanta.

Reducing the child-adult ratio from 26 to 1 to 17 to 1 and using concrete activities rather than worksheets, he said, has helped to draw out shy or troubled children who "needed a personal touch they may not have gotten in the regular classroom."

"When you teach children [at their level] with appropriate materials, they don't get frustrated," said Rosalie G. Campbell, a teacher at the Ficquett Elementary School in Newton County.

Despite efforts to schedule training and conferences at convenient times for parents, some pilot-school officials voiced concern over parent participation rates that have hovered around 25 percent. But they say the program has been well received by those who have participated.

"We have to measure it in terms of what changes take place in that individual family as a result," Ms. Meinhardt said. Given the program's newness and the difficulty of the endeavor, she said, "25 percent is a phenomenal success."

Schools seeking s.i.a. funds were required to submit a plan for reducing class sizes, adding classroom aides, or finding other ways to offer pupilsmore individual attention. Eligible pupils are to be served in the regular classroom, rather than through "pull-out" or segregated classes.

Instruction should focus on literacy while integrating basic subjects such as math, science, and language skills, and activities should be "developmentally appropriate" to the children's level of ability, according Ms. Meinhardt.

For at least an hour a day, children must be allowed to work at "learning centers" where they can manipulate objects and take part in projects involving dramatic play, art, science, social studies, cooking, sand and water play, number games, and outdoor play.

Pupils should have opportunities to plan and select activities, Ms. Meinhardt said, and materials should be "concrete, real, and relevant to children's lives," a program description states.

Instruction should extend "beyond the classroom and into the community," Ms. Meinhardt added, through field trips and visits to the classroom by community members.

Because a key goal of s.i.a. is to hone language skills, classes should allow pupils to engage in "meaning8ful conversation among themselves and with adults," Ms. Meinhardt said. "A quiet classroom is not conducive to language development."

Another key goal is to encourage parents to become more involved in their children's schooling.

The program, which will teach parents how to stimulate their children's learning, marks the first time the state has made a financial commitment to educating parents, Ms. Meinhardt said. Officials are hopeful that component will reap "some of the greatest long-term benefits," she said.

Schools in the program must schedule several opportunities for parent training and parent-teacher conferences, arranging meetings both at school and in parents' homes.

In addition to training teachers to work with smaller groups of pupils and to implement developmentally appropriate programs, the program's staff-development component offers guidance on working with parents.

"We have great techniques for working with children, but we have not been equally trained to work with adults," Ms. Meinhardt noted.

Responding to concerns raised by schools in the pilot program, the state board in June agreed to streamline the process used to select eligible children and measure their progress.

"The amount of testing and the time involved has been a concern of ours, and it's a concern statewide," said Herbert F. Burnsed, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Newton County.

Concern about the overuse of tests in early grades has become a sensitive issue in Georgia since the state became the first to mandate that kindergarten pupils' scores on a standardized test be used as a criterion in promotion decisions.

In the wake of criticism from early-childhood experts, Mr. Rogers and the board agreed last spring to phase out paper- and pencil-testing in favor of a performance-based test and more teacher observation. (See Education Week, March 15, 1989.)

The board was "concerned about the testing of young children," and demonstrated its concern by supporting alternate ways to evaluate s.i.a., Ms. Meinhardt noted.

In the pilot program, children were assessed using a lengthy battery of pre- and post-tests that involved several professionals and had to be spread out over several days.

Under the board's new policy, children initially are screened for sia based on data from parent and teacher observations, standardized test data where available, or a language assessment.

Kindergartners identified as potential candidates are then given a 30-minute test in which teachers observe the children perform such tasks as identifying pictures and sorting objects by size and color. Those who score below the 35th national percentile qualify for s.i.a.

An existing criterion-referenced test is used to help determine s.i.a. eligibility for 1st-graders.

Teachers will regularly monitor pupils' progress using a skills checklist and a "home inventory" completed in consultation with parents; the lengthy post-testing process will be eliminated.

Experts note that the program's hands-on approach, while not new or unique, represents a conscious shift away from the more formal instruction that had been imposed in early grades partly as a result of the education-reform movement's emphasis on raising standards.

"What has happened, unfortunately, throughout the country is that early-childhood programs have become inappropriate," Ms. Cousin4eau said. "This simply restores the balance."

Fern Marx, a research associate with the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, noted that prekindergarten programs enacted in recent years have acted "as a stimulus" for some states to rethink their instructional approaches in the early grades.

But relative to the state's size and resources, the level of commitment in Georgia--which does not have a statewide preschool program--is ''a major achievement," she said.

"We should celebrate that kind of commitment to change."

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