Parents sometimes flee Denver for suburban school districts. Jennifer Aguilar goes the opposite direction.
The discerning mom hunts for the best programs for each child, even if it means driving four daughters to schools in three Colorado districts: Denver, Littleton, and Jefferson County. What gets her to drive 10 miles from her Littleton home to take her 4-year-old daughter to Gust Elementary in southwest Denver is advanced kindergarten.
The Denver Public Schools’ advanced-kindergarten program, now in its seventh year, draws families who want a faster academic pace for their children, and it helps retain some who might otherwise choose private schools or other districts.
Enrollment in the program has nearly doubled since its inception in 2004, when 111 children started in classes at four city schools. This year, 200 students are in advanced-kindergarten classrooms in eight schools throughout the district. An additional 48 children are on waiting lists, 46 of whom hoped to win spots at the Polaris Program at Ebert, Denver’s sought-after elementary school for gifted students.
Altogether, the Denver district received 459 applications for the 200 seats in the advanced-kindergarten program this school year. In order to qualify for advanced kindergarten, the young applicants need to score at the 90th percentile or higher on tests called the K-SEALS and not all score high enough to be admitted.
A Different Kindergarten
At Gust Elementary School, gone are the days when kindergartners played and painted for a couple of hours. Many children arrive in Judy Pansini’s advanced-kindergarten class already reading. She sends them soaring from there.
“It would be silly to review the alphabet when we already have children who are reading well,’’ Ms. Pansini said. “We see where they are, and we move them up.”
By the end of the year, her students could be reading at 2nd grade levels, writing short chapter books, and doing complex addition and subtraction. Ms. Pansini remains flexible, seeking ways to stimulate each child’s talents.
“If I have some who are advanced in math, we can just send them to first grade for math,” she said.
Her room also boasts a smartboard—a high-tech interactive device unusual in kindergarten. As the children arrive in the morning, they take their own attendance, finding and dragging their names on the large whiteboard to show they’re ready to learn. Later, they use the board to practice forming letters, reading, and math skills.
“I think it’s great,’’ said Ms. Aguilar. “The kids are moving right along. They should be able to excel. They shouldn’t be held back for kids who don’t get it. Everybody’s different. It’s good they are accommodating these kids.”
Ms. Aguilar said her oldest two daughters, now 14 and 16, attended Denver’s public schools when they were young and didn’t have the same option to excel that their sister, Anna, is getting. The older girls were sometimes bored in classes where struggling children demanded the most attention, Ms. Aguilar said.
She raves about Ms. Pansini and the other teachers at Gust and said she plans to keep driving Anna there as long as she’s “excelling, enjoying herself, and the teachers are on the ball.”
Data Show Results
So far, data show that children who attended advanced kindergarten scored better on end-of-the-year literacy tests than children who attended other Denver Public Schools kindergarten programs. Those results applied to both low-income children and those from more affluent families.
This might be expected, since getting into the Denver advanced-kindergarten program is based on a child’s early exposure to reading and math skills. But district data also show that, as they progress through elementary school, the advanced-kindergarten children seem to retain their advanced abilities.
Of children who started in advanced kindergarten in 2004, 98 percent were reading at or above targeted levels by the end of kindergarten. By the 3rd grade, 94 percent of the students who attended advanced kindergarten and were still in the district tested proficient or advanced on state reading exams.
The data also show a smaller achievement gap linked to income. Among the children in advanced kindergarten in both 2004-05 and 2005-06, 179 stayed in the district through grade 3. Of those, 25 percent qualified for federal lunch aid, an indicator of poverty.
On state reading tests, 89 percent of students qualifying for federal lunch aid were reading at grade level, compared with 96 percent of students from more affluent families. In comparison, among children who attended traditional full-day kindergarten during the same period, 53 percent who qualified for federal lunch aid were reading at grade level in grade 3, compared with 88 percent from more affluent families.
Transitioning to 1st Grade
The Denver Public Schools started the advanced-kindergarten program because parents asked for it, said Barbara Neyrinck, the program manager for the district’s gifted-and-talented department.
“Parents needed something more. The district felt that there were enough students to create a program where they didn’t have to repeat material they already knew,” Ms. Neyrinck said. “Originally, one was placed in each part of the city. We started with four classrooms and, very soon, expanded.”
The program works especially well when children can funnel into advanced elementary school programs after kindergarten, such as International Baccalaureate and gifted-and-talented programs.
At Gust Elementary, Principal Jamie Roybal said the advanced-kindergarten program stimulates her students and draws families to the school. State education funding in Colorado follows the student, so Ms. Roybal can accept children from outside Denver as long as they qualify, though Denver residents receive priority in the program.
“I’ve been thrilled because so many of our advanced-kindergarten families are staying with us,” Ms. Roybal said. “They fit into our community, and most go on to the [gifted-and-talented] magnet program.”
Gust has four kindergartens. One caters to Spanish-speaking children, one is advanced, and the other two are traditional.
The advanced-kindergarten children had homework over the summer and returned to school in August with completed packets. Those high expectations continue for the students throughout the school year.
“It’s faster-paced, more in-depth. The students are able to read and write. They’re more focused. They have a little bit better idea of what it means to be a student. They’re reading and are eager to learn,” Ms. Roybal said. “They’re curious and have questions, questions, questions.”
She said her advanced students start at least a year ahead. She’s tracking them to make sure that boost stays true through grade 5.
Advanced kindergarten seems to be generating results at a low cost, and the program is no more expensive than traditional kindergarten.
“It all has to do with the district being nimble and adapting to changing needs in the world,” said Cheryl Caldwell, the Denver Public Schools’ director of early education, who has been studying advanced kindergarten and student outcomes over time. “We’re looking at the exact needs of special populations regardless of whether they are at the high or low end, and figuring out if we have programs to meet those needs.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as Achievement Gap Narrows in Colo. Advanced Kindergarten