Early Childhood

Jump Start

By Linda Jacobson — April 14, 2006 7 min read
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On top of a colorful classroom rug, kindergarten teacher 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 each a chance to guess where the figure is hiding. But first, they have to name the shape.

“No peeking—that’s what people do in preschool, and we’re not in preschool anymore,” Burnam tells them.

Neither are they yet in traditional kindergarten—not according to the calendar on the wall, which shows it is July 2005. That’s half a month left to go before the first day of classes at Valley View Elementary School in Las Cruces, New Mexico. What these new students are in is luck. They’re part of an innovative program that gives disadvantaged kids a chance to catch up to where their peers will be, academically and socially, when classes at Valley View get started in earnest. By the time the bell rings 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 to adjust to an unfamiliar building, new faces, and higher expectations. And when the school year ends, the same kids will get an extra 20 days to transition them to upcoming 1st grade classes.

Called Kindergarten-Plus, the concept is the brainchild of the late 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.” Feldman wrote about the concept in her frequent “Where We Stand” columns, which appeared as paid advertisements in newspapers nationwide.

A preliminary evaluation of the pilot program found marked improvement in the participating students' lingual skills and a decline in the number needing additional help once school got under way.

State Representative 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.”

There wasn’t enough funding available in 2003 to implement the program statewide, but the Democratic lawmaker 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 gave a total of $400,000 each year to enroll eligible children in the program in Albuquerque, Gadsden, Gallup-McKinley, and Las Cruces.

According to a preliminary evaluation of the program, released last year by New Mexico’s office of education accountability, it was money well spent. Tests showed an improvement in Kindergarten-Plus children’s ability to name letters and identify and pronounce word sounds. The program also led to fewer children being classified as having “delayed skills” during their kindergarten year. Those findings will play an important role in prompting legislators and Governor Bill Richardson to pass a $1 million extension and expansion of the pilot in March 2006. The governmental go-ahead will prolong the initiative for at least the next three years, as well as authorizing up to four months of Kindergarten-Plus, and opening it up to any disadvantaged school in the state. And lawmakers in the Cactus State aren’t the only ones to have noticed the pilot’s potential: Legislators in other states and even on Capitol Hill have also shown interest in replicating the idea.

But teachers who’ve seen Kindergarten-Plus in action didn’t have to wait for the evaluation or the approbation of bandwagon jumpers to know it was a winner. “These kids are so much better prepared,” says Becky King, who has been teaching 1st grade at Valley View for 30 years, and notes the marked improvement of preparation levels since the program was implemented three years ago. “The more they’re here, the more they’re getting. It’s not like they would be going to camps or Bible school [otherwise].” 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 also shaped up since Kindergarten-Plus began, King notes 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 images of garden tools—skills that will help later with their handwriting. Similar improvements are evident across the hall, outside Cherie Love’s 1st grade class, where impressive writing samples about helicopters in the sky hang on the wall. “It’s amazing what you can get a 1st grader to do,” Love marvels, showing on one paper how a child wrote neatly from margin to margin and clearly spaced his words. “What used to happen in 1st grade, they’re doing in kindergarten—those readiness skills.”

That kind of cognitive kick-start is what has drawn the eyes of legislators in other places, though the funding and political will to follow through have so far been missing: Louisiana has passed a Kindergarten-Plus law, but so far, the program has yet to receive 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, Democratic U.S. senator from Connecticut Christopher Dodd introduced a federal Kindergarten-Plus bill. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, 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. For now, she says, the bill is “just sitting there, waiting for the right amount of interest.”

But Ed Muir, an assistant director of research and information services at the AFT, thinks the recent New Mexico expansion may be a catalyst for wider adoption of the Kindergarten-Plus model. “Its record is speaking for itself,” he notes. “What has been done so far has been good enough to attract broader support.”

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. That’s taken some getting used to, but the focus has also been an attraction. During breakfast at the school, Eli Guzman stands off to the side to watch his daughter, Giovanni, eat 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. “It’s supposed to better prepare them for the school year,” he says.

Getting Valley View’s teachers to focus more on academics, principal Jamie Jones recalls, took more persuasion. “Some of my teachers thought kindergarten should just be social,” says Jones, who taught 1st grade in the 1980s and 1990s. 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. And though she still gets questions about whether the children are being hurt by higher academic expectations, Jones responds: “How can you hurt a kid when they’re learning? All of our kids could benefit from 40 extra days.”

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

At Valley View, King remembers that 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.”

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