Early Childhood

Ahead of Their Class

By Linda Jacobson — August 30, 2005 9 min read
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On top of a colorful classroom rug, Pattie Burnam places four basic shapes. Asking her pupils to close their eyes, she hides a cutout of a gingerbread man under the triangle.

She then calls on the children one by one, giving them a chance to guess where the figure is hiding. But first, they have to name it.

“No peeking—that’s what people do in preschool, and we’re not in preschool anymore,” Burnam tells her “grown-up kindergartners,” as she calls them.

In addition to a welcoming teacher, these new kindergartners at Valley View Elementary School have an extra advantage as they adjust to an unfamiliar building, new faces, and higher expectations. By the time the school year starts here two weeks hence, they will have already had 20 additional days in class—20 days without older students in the lunchroom or on the playground, 20 days before the hectic pace of the new year begins.

“That quietness translates to amazing comfort,” says Principal Jamie Jones. “The kids are calm.”

First graders Melissa Placencio, top, and Alejandra Arbizo work on their computer skills during class.

Called Kindergarten-Plus, the concept is the brainchild of former American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman.

At the union’s 2002 convention, she challenged the federal government “to help states and districts to provide disadvantaged children with the opportunity to start kindergarten during the summer months before they would ordinarily enter, and then to stay on through the summer before they will enter 1st grade.”

Such a program, Feldman added, “could make a big difference in the lives of our poorest children. It will accelerate their early education, socialization, and well-being, and can help make sure that they don’t enter 1st grade with as large a disadvantage.”

While the AFT has also advocated universal prekindergarten nationwide, Kindergarten-Plus could be thought of as a “down payment,” said Feldman, who wrote about the concept in the frequent “Where We Stand” columns she penned.

State Rep. Mimi Stewart, a resource teacher who provides professional development in the Albuquerque public schools, kept seeing those columns.

“Every time I read it, I thought, that’s the answer for New Mexico,” she says. “We had just started [the federal No Child Left Behind law], and I knew we were going to be having these schools that were not going to be meeting adequate yearly progress.”

Funding was unavailable in 2003 to implement the program statewide. Still, Stewart, a Democrat, was able to move a bill through the legislature that launched a three-year pilot in the four New Mexico districts with the highest percentage of students in Title I schools, which generally enroll more disadvantaged children.

The state gives a total of $400,000 each year to enroll eligible children in the program in the four districts: Albuquerque, Gadsden, Gallup-McKinley, and here in Las Cruces.

A preliminary evaluation of the program, released earlier this year by New Mexico’s office of education accountability, found increases in children’s ability to name letters and identify and pronounce word sounds. According to the analysis, which was conducted after the 2003-04 school year, the program also led to fewer children being classified as having “delayed skills” during their kindergarten year.

Despite that analysis and anecdotal evidence indicating that it works, the program could be in jeopardy.

A prekindergarten initiative for 4-year-olds kicks off this fall in the state, and advocates of Kindergarten Plus are concerned there won’t be enough interest in the legislature to keep the kindergarten program going.

“I hate in education how we keep adding things,” Principal Jones says, “but we don’t keep doing things until we perfect them.”

The new, $5 million pre-K program, pushed by Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson during the 2005 legislative session, will be provided in some schools as well as in community-based preschools and child-care centers. Like Kindergarten-Plus, it will initially target children in communities with the most Title I schools as well as youngsters in areas with the highest percentages of students not making AYP.

While Jones is not opposed to the idea of a prekindergarten program, she says her school doesn’t have any empty classrooms to accommodate 4-year-olds. The kindergarten classrooms, however, are already there.

Because the idea of Kindergarten-Plus is to give children extra time before and after their kindergarten year, Valley View Elementary also invites incoming 1st graders to start school early—sort of a “plus-plus.”

“These kids are so much better prepared,” says Becky King, who has been teaching 1st grade at Valley View for 30 years and has seen how the program has benefited the mostly disadvantaged children who attend the school. “The more they’re here, the more they’re getting. It’s not like they would be going to camps or Bible school [otherwise].”

First graders use masks as a tool during a read-aloud exercise in the Valley View cafeteria.

As she shows off simple book reports her pupils have completed, she adds, “I’m very pleased with their writing.”

Kindergarten teacher Burnam naturally has to encourage the newcomers in her class to pay attention, sit “crisscross, applesauce,” and keep their hands to themselves, but those reminders aren’t needed in King’s class. Behavior has improved since the Kindergarten-Plus program began, King says, as she hands out graham crackers to the youngsters while they work.

The children are quiet as they color a connect-the-dots picture and trace pictures of garden tools—a skill that will help later with their handwriting.

Across the hall, outside Cherie Love’s 1st grade class, impressive writing samples—about helicopters in the sky—hang on the wall.

“It’s amazing what you can get a 1st grader to do,” says Love, showing an example of a child’s work, how he wrote from margin to margin and clearly spaced his words. “What used to happen in 1st grade, they’re doing in kindergarten—those readiness skills.”

Lawmakers outside New Mexico have also shown interest in harnessing such readiness skills for their states’ children. Louisiana has passed a Kindergarten-Plus law, but so far the program has not received any funding, according to Giselle Lundy-Ponce, a senior associate in the AFT’s educational issues department.

In Rhode Island, a bill was introduced, and interest in crafting legislation has also been expressed in Texas and Virginia.

Before Feldman retired from the AFT presidency in 2004 because of a recurrence of cancer, U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., introduced a federal Kindergarten-Plus bill. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Senate education committee’s top Democrat and a strong proponent of more spending for early-childhood education, also likes the idea, according to Lundy-Ponce. Still, she says, the bill is “just sitting there, waiting for the right amount of interest.”

In New Mexico, Kindergarten Plus is a heavily academic program instead of simply a get-to-know-you-better time, though some fun activities, including field trips and water play, are built in. Getting her teachers to focus on academics, Jones says, took some persuasion.

“Some of my [kindergarten] teachers thought kindergarten should just be social,” says Jones, who taught 1st grade in the 1980s. She says she earned a reputation as a rebel because she taught her pupils spelling before the curriculum said they were supposed to learn it.

Jones says she still gets questions about whether the children are being hurt by higher academic expectations. She responds: “How can you hurt a kid when they’re learning? All of our kids could benefit from 40 extra days.”

First graders walk through Valley View Elementary's cafeteria.

Persuading teachers to cut their summers short also took a little extra work, despite the extra pay.

“We’ve programmed ourselves to having a summer off,” Jones says.

Without teacher buy-in, in fact, the program can’t work, as shown by the experience at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, also here in Las Cruces. The school offered the program the first year, but when the two teachers involved had family emergencies, no one else was willing to take their places.

At Valley View, King says her initial reaction was something like, “Oh my! I have to go back to work?” But she says she realized she’d rather be spending her time with children than in a staff-development seminar.

“I’ve probably had all the training I can handle,” she says. “I love my job, and I’d rather be doing this.”

Jones describes herself as a “picky principal” when it comes to mealtimes at school because she requires her teachers to stay with their charges instead of taking a break. She believes the informal atmosphere is an optimal time for conversation and vocabulary development.

Earlier this summer morning at breakfast, which is served to all the children, Burnam takes time to squat down next to some of her pupils as they eat, answering their questions and encouraging good behavior.

Those additional days without the older students, she says, really come in handy because the cafeteria routine had changed. Instead of simply grabbing their cereal and milk, the children are now instructed to pick up a tray first and choose additional food items, including the apple-cinnamon square that the food-service worker describes as “like a Pop-Tart.”

The change, Burnam says, “may seem insignificant,” but deciding which item should be placed in which tray compartment is a big decision for a 5-year-old.

During breakfast, Eli Guzman, stands off to the side to watch his daughter, Giovanni, eat her breakfast and talk quietly with other girls. Even though he lives outside Valley View’s attendance zone, he requested a transfer for her, partly because of the Kindergarten-Plus program.

Barbara Rhodes escorts her kindergarten class to the school's pond to feed the fish and reinforce listening skills, group work, and respect for nature.

“It’s supposed to better prepare them for the school year,” he says, adding that his two older children, now 11 and 12, attended Valley View Elementary. “I liked this school so much.”

Because of the age difference between Giovanni, who goes by “Gigi,” and her older siblings, Guzman says his daughter was eager to spend time with children her own age. Since Kindergarten Plus began, he says, she has come home talking about her new friends.

He stays to watch Gigi, dressed in bright pink and wearing two pigtails on top of her head, walk down the hall to Burnam’s class.

Not only does Burnam expect good kindergarten behavior, but she also frequently encourages her youngsters by telling them they’re about to do 1st grade work.

In fact, when the class begins singing an alphabet song using the letter sounds, Cecelia Martinez, a talkative pupil with a know-it-all attitude asks, “Is this a 1st grade thing?”

Later, as the children sit in small groups for more individual instruction, Burnam says Kindergarten-Plus gives children the exposure to learning that they might not get outside of school.

“Some people have been everywhere and done everything,” she says, placing her hands gently on Cecelia’s head. “And some people haven’t.”

When the pilot program ends next year, Jones hopes to have more than just her own gut feelings to convince policymakers that Kindergarten-Plus should continue.

While New Mexico’s standardized-testing program doesn’t start until 3rd grade, she’s gathering scores that compare basic early-literacy skills of 1st graders who attended Kindergarten-Plus with those of 1st graders in other schools.

For now, the future of Kindergarten-Plus depends on whether state policymakers are willing to support more than one early-childhood initiative at a time.

“If it continues, it will have to continue as part of the legislative process,” says Karen Ehlert, the full-day-kindergarten coordinator at the New Mexico education department.

Rep. Stewart says she will try to make that happen in next year’s session by somehow linking the pre-K legislation with Kindergarten-Plus.

“It’s a perfect progression,” she says. “The infrastructure is there, the teachers are there, and these kids really own the school.”

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