A bevy of bouncing kindergartners chanted, "She'll be coming around the mountain when she comes." But the lyrics of the traditional song were changed so the children sang about sounds from the alphabet.
Then they settled down, with fat pencils clutched in little fingers, to the challenge of writing their names on lined penmanship paper.
What sets this class apart from other kindergartens beginning this month is that it is part of READS Primary School, the only secular private school in the central Kenai Penin-sula.
Owner and head teacher Pam Hershberger, "Miss Pam" to the students, opened the school in the summer of 1996.
The name READS is an acronym for "Readiness Education And Developmental Skills," and she describes it as a "back to basics" primary school for children in kindergarten through second grade.
"There is a need there," she said. "Too bad we can't service more (families)."
Small class sizes and an emphasis on phonics are key to the school's popularity, she said.
This year, READS has 26 children in two classes, one of kindergartners and one for a combined first and second grade.
"I have the benefit of having a small classroom setting," she said. "I know the public school would love to have those numbers, too."
Parents want a sound academic foundation and like it when children learn to read early, Hershberger has found.
"I have a good base for phonics and mathematics skills," she said. "We have high expectations on behaviors as well as academics."
READS has dispensed with some items found in public schools. For example, there is not a computer to be seen at the school. Having them for such young children is unnecessary, especially since every one of the pupils has access to one at home, she said.
The little school, in a remodeled house on the north side of Kenai, contains an entry area, kitchen, restrooms and a snack room as well as the two classrooms. School is in session from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and every Friday the students travel to the Kenai Recreation Center for physical education.
READS runs a separate summer school for children going into kindergarten or first grade with an emphasis on reading readiness.
Hershberger came from a family of teachers. After getting her college degree in elementary education, obtaining state certification and working as a substitute teacher for several years, she began researching the requirements for private and charter schools. She wanted to be independent, to pick her own curriculum and develop a school using her background in phonics.
"I decided I would go out on my own," she said. "I don't know exactly what prompted me."
First-grader Gretta Kennedy plays with Lincoln Logs during playtime.
Photo by Jay Barrett
She credited a good network of family and community support for making READS successful.
Her parents, whom she described as retired master teachers, help out. Her mother, who used to teach at the school, is her "reading specialist." Her father visits the children as their "Mister Science."
Penny Hallmark, Hershberger's assistant and the other teacher at the school, also is her sister-in-law.
"She is wonderful with kids. I love having her in here. This is her second year," Hershberger said.
Hershberger also works with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The district gives her information, and she sometimes refers families to its special services.
"We have a wonderful relationship with the public system," she said. "I have a real respect for (Superintendent) Donna Peterson."
Parents are another vital part of the school. Because they drop off and pick up their children, Hershberger and Hallmark see them every day and have opportunities for timely consultations about the students' progress.
The drawbacks for families interested in READS are the cost and the limited enrollment.
Hershberger said she would teach the children for free if she could. But the economic realities require her to charge tuition.
"A lot of my parents pay for their children's education with their permanent fund (dividend)," she said.
The school has a long waiting list. The list turns over quite a bit as families move or settle for other options, but demand continues to be strong despite demographic trends showing fewer young children on the peninsula, she said.
"Right now we are very successful and in demand," she said. "But who can read the future?"
Hershberger stressed that she has no intention of expanding despite the demand. For now, she doubles as school custodian, nurse and secretary. If READS grew, she would have to spend more time in administration, away from the classroom time with children that inspired her to found the school.
"I have thoroughly enjoyed it," she said. "Every morning I open the doors and am glad to be here."
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