Kindergarten is not as simple as A-B-C, Kenai Peninsula educators say.
Although the state of Alaska does not require children to attend kindergarten, teachers are seeing the year as crucial for getting schooling off to a good start. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is exploring innovative schedules to give children as many benefits as possible during that first year.
"We believe kindergarten is a very important time," said Ken Meacham, principal at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna.
Mick Wykis, his counterpart at Sears Elementary School in Kenai, agreed. This year, his school has started a new kindergarten schedule with classes split into two, overlapping sessions.
Five-year-old Cody Beecken uses the pointing stick to show where the word "the" is on the word board, during and excercise in Atkinson's class.
Photo by Jay Barrett
Monday at 1:30 p.m., parents lined up in the halls to pick up the morning session children, who had been at school since the regular starting time of 8:45 a.m. In Mary Jackson's classroom, the kindergartners from "Team One" sat in coats and backpacks awaiting dismissal, while their classmates from "Team Two" sat in a group looking at books.
Team One had the teacher all to themselves until 10:30 a.m. From the time they left until the final bell at 3:25 p.m., Team Two received focused academic instruction from their teacher. Splitting the class allows for groups of 10 to 12 children working on core subjects like reading readiness and number skills.
Lori Newton, Sears' teacher and grade level chairperson for kindergarten, said parents and teachers like the new schedule.
"What it allows is almost two hours of reduced pupil teacher ratio," she said.
The students have a lot to learn to set them up for success in higher grades, including social skills, academics and independence. During the overlap hours, the children attend group activities such as lunch, recess, physical education and music. But during the morning and afternoon, the teacher can tutor them individually in subjects such as number awareness and phonics, she said.
"Whenever you have a smaller group of kids, you can address more needs," she said.
Before switching to the split schedule, Sears used a schedule of "call backs." Each kindergarten was divided into five subgroups, with each group staying for the extra two hours in the afternoon once a week for individualized attention.
The problem, Newton said, was that if a child were absent the wrong day, he or she could miss an entire week of essential lessons.
Throughout the district, elementary schools are experimenting with ways to balance traditional class sizes of 20 or more kindergartners with the goal of personalized attention. Each school can set its own schedule within budget limits, and several are studying kindergartens elsewhere for ideas.
Newton said Sears' change followed much research and soul searching.
"We wanted the best thing for our children, so we were real cautious," she said. "At this point, I think all of us feel good things are happening with this."
Redoubt and Soldotna elementary schools are working together on kindergarten options. Earlier this month their teachers visited three schools in Anchorage to look at kindergarten alternatives, Meacham said.
"We've had to be fairly creative in keeping numbers where kids can learn," he said.
After four years on the overlapping schedule, his school has switched to full-day kindergarten. Two of the three kindergartens remain at school for the full day used for other grades. The third kindergarten class dismisses at 1 p.m. but only has 12 students.
The teachers like having the extra time with the children, he said.
"We believe that full-day kindergarten has extremely high merit. I see kids doing more at this time than ever before," Meacham said.
Teachers had worried that long days would tire 5-year-olds, but so far the children have done well with the extended hours, the educators said.
Funding is the main obstacle to smaller or extended kindergartens, and more money is unlikely in the foreseeable future because of the austere education funding situation statewide, the educators said.
The state only pays for one-way busing for the children, which creates a problem for a few families, Newton said. Sears is working with the new Central Area Rural Transit System Inc. to set up a permanent solution.
The educators also said they would like kindergarten to become mandatory in Alaska, but doubt that will happen any time soon.
They point to an increasing emphasis on early intervention to help children master crucial literacy skills, prompting renewed attention to kindergarten and beyond that even to preschool.
Wykis said, "I think (kindergarten) should be required. But in a parallel thought I would hope the state could offer more preschool. There is a need."
He expressed concern that some children are not ready for kindergarten or first grade and urged parents to read to their toddlers.
"In general, we see kids coming in less exposed to literature, to the written word, to nursery rhymes, to the alphabet," he said. "We may need to look at preschool differently than we did just 10 years ago."
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