Early education changes can help close the gap

by Ed Saxton

Kindergarden in Independent School District 15 starting in 2012-13 will be an entirely new experience. Every kindergardener in our district will be participating in an all-day, every-day model with no fee required.

Our elementary principals and teachers are extremely excited about this shift in the delivery of instruction. Early intervention has been an effective strategy for improving learning. With educational intervention, a solid argument is “the sooner, the better.”

As superintendent, I have the opportunity and responsibility to conduct teacher observations as part of our Quality Compensation (Q-comp) program. This year, in a post-observation with a first-grade teacher, I was once again reminded that the achievement gap starts early and is predictable.

She said within a few weeks she can establish which of her first-graders had attended all-day, every-day and which ones had attended every-day, half-day kindergarten. She also stated both our current kindergarten programs are preferred to the all-day, every-other day/every-other Friday model used in our district approximately eight years ago. She smiled and said, “All-day, every-day for all students would be the very best.”

Our teachers in our current all-day, every-day program have seen firsthand what an extended learning experience yields. Reading with expression, quality work on math and writing complete sentences with punctuation are just a few of the many positive outcomes.

Parents will have questions as we transition to this all-day, every-day model. Questions may surface related to the pace of learning, the logistics of lunch at school or even the fun or joy of learning. All of these and more will be addressed by teachers and principals as we move forward.

The one question parents will not have to answer is: “Can our personal household budget afford the enriched experience of an all-day kindergarden program?”

A second initiative in 2012-13 is the introduction of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) at the fourth-grade level in each of our three elementary schools. This five-year roll out plan will focus on comprehensive STEM offerings in grades four thruogh 12 by the 2017-18 school year.

These two projects will add to an already exciting elementary program that has adopted a new reading series yielding positive student growth. Our reading series features high-interest material coupled with increased rigor. The newly adopted reading program is generating positive reviews from instructors and administrators. Because the pace is uptempo and acquisition of knowledge is brisk, this reading series is appropriately named Journeys.

Our district engaged in a professional-development model that was recognized by the Journeys trainers as “extremely effective” when selected members of our staff were trained in June 2011. A particular advantage of our plan was the instructors who facilitated the additional training were already Teacher Academy mentors. As a result of their prior knowledge focused on assisting colleagues, the transition to reading mentors had a laser-like focus.

Our instructors are impressed with the wealth of resources available to shape our young readers. Use of the resources have encouraged hard work and have increased learning capacity. It’s exciting that the variety in this curriculum appears to keep students engaged and thirsting for more activities.

Smart boards have enhanced engagement in Journeys lessons and activities. For years, teachers have successfully manipulated flash cards with sounds and letters. In a technology-rich environment, these hand-held visual aids for learning have been enriched by big-screen, billboard-like, interactive displays for all students to see and shape. The “journey” is incredible.

You may have watched an investigative police show during the evening hours. Often these episodes use technology similar to smart boards as the tool that helps organize clues for the good guys. In comparison, our instructors help our students (the good guys) by using the smart board to reveal clues that will unlock the potential to read, read and read a bit more.

With that being said, consider asking our elementary students which instructional method they prefer. I’ll side with the smart board, and I’ll bet they will too. In a span of about three years, our district has become an example of how to acquire technology; more importantly, we have demonstrated how to implement teaching methodology electronically. Very few districts in the state have interactive smart boards in every elementary classroom. We have made that investment a priority to enhance educational activity.

The Journeys reading series incorporates decoding as a strategy for all students. They discover the answers to, “What is a root word?” “How is the word changed by adding a prefix or a suffix?” Acquiring decoding skills will increase understanding and prepare our children to perform well on local and state tests. The assessment available with this adopted reading program allows for a comprehensive look at where students are and where they are going in terms of achievement.

The importance of our children reading at grade level by third grade is imperative. There is no doubt: the new series is rigorous, the technology component is comprehensive, the teachers are continuing to refine lessons and the training of reading mentors has been well-worth the time and effort. Moving forward as a team of educators, parents, and community members, we can capitalize on these actions and continue to make our K-5 programing model the finest in the state of Minnesota.

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

Comments Closed