Dist. 15’s early childhood program an excellent choice

by Ed Saxton

Making educational choices are incremental and ongoing activities. Parents seek information to make quality calculations and enroll their children in schools and programs they believe meet the needs of the student and the family. Planning ahead in the early months of 2012 is a great idea.

With planning in mind, what is worth considering? The next two paragraphs explain the essence of our early childhood program and why it is an excellent choice for our families.

The Independent School District 15 Early Childhood programs have been recognized by the Minnesota Department of Education for providing exemplar learning experiences for young children in a variety of ways: the structure of programming, the choice of curriculum, collaboration initiatives, inclusion practices of children with special needs and the use of technology with young children. Other programs from around the state consult with the ISD 15 Early Childhood programs for ideas on how to improve and create their own high-quality programs.

The curriculum is story-based so that children have a strong foundation in emergent reading and writing through play-based experiences, small and large groups and individual interactions. The curriculum also addresses social skills, mathematical thinking, science investigations, social studies, art and physical development.

These facts can help parents with the first educational choice for their child. Fast forward to kindergarten (which sounds ironic, but time truly does fly). It seems as if it were only yesterday when my grandchildren were born—now the oldest will soon be entering kindergarten.

With that said, an appropriate question might be: How has the kindergarten experience changed for the better in ISD 15? To best understand this question, it is important to know the pattern that was in place.

Prior to 2006, our kindergarten students came to school for all day every other day/every other-Friday class. Even though this is a common practice in school districts, a quick look at a school calendar shows continuity of the learning experience will suffer—shortened school weeks, student illness and staff illness all have the potential for creating an extended gap between instruction days.

One solution school districts (including ours) have implemented is fee-based, all day every day kindergarten. This solution brings students and teachers together every school day during the year and can be a great advantage; however, the fee-based concept eliminates some students. Because the state funding formula does not provide dollars for a complete day of kindergarten, only some families have been able to choose the fee-based option.

In 2006, concluding that increased frequency of classroom instruction enhances learning exponentially, our district converted to an every day half-day model. All kindergarten students would attend school daily in the morning or in the afternoon. Many citizens were excited about continuity of learning, and some were concerned about a potential half-day childcare conflict. Families adjusted, and our students began to benefit from the increase in days at school.

Achievement moved ahead in a positive manner, and our teachers and principals began to see results. Our new program of every day half-day increased the instructional time. Still interested in enhancing the kindergarten experience, we added Kindergarten Stretch. The program allows us to supplement our regular program with 85 hours of targeted services. Small groups of six to eight students are invited to extend their kindergarten experience to full days for approximately 23 days at no cost to families. Lunch is included at no charge.

With fee-based all day every day, every day-half-day and Kindergarten Stretch, we continue to see achievement increase. In the 2011-12 school year, we are piloting an additional feature to the program that is progressing quite well. This pilot adds 45 minutes of instructional time, allows for added experiences and is cost-effective, providing 30 percent more classroom instruction for our half-day kindergartners. The goal continues to be increased instructional time for our youngest learners.

As this program addresses the unique needs of our kindergarten students, our desire is to deliver a program that warrants a first choice by parents.

Please look for a follow-up article next month about how technology is enhancing the educational adventure experienced in all of our K-5 classrooms.

Ed Saxton is the superintendent of the St. Francis Independent School District 15.

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