Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Jump Start teaches kindergarteners basics

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — Teacher Esther Larson was troubled last year watching some of her kindergarten students struggle to distinguish among shapes, colors and letters.

        They saw the color yellow and called it a triangle, and some couldn't identify letters of the alphabet.

        But other kindergartners at Holbrook Elementary could identify shapes, colors and letters — and even write their names in full.

        Despite the range of students' capabilities in kindergarten, teachers are expected to prepare all children for the rigors of first grade and lay the groundwork for the years ahead. Their task often has to be completed in half-day sessions of 2 1/2 hours, which many teachers say is not enough time.

        Lebanon Schools knew some children weren't keeping up with their classmates in the half-day sessions so the district launched Jump Start, an intervention kindergarten program that helps at-risk kids become better readers by continuing their learning for an extra three hours.

        The program is part of a federal Reading Excellence Act grant for $734,000, which the district received in part because not enough Lebanon children passed the reading section of the fourth-grade proficiency test.

        “Without Jump Start, these children would be the ones struggling to be ready for first grade,” Ms. Larson said. “Hopefully now they'll be prepared.”

        Over the past three years, an average of 47 percent of fourth-graders passed the state proficiency test; the state benchmark is 75 percent. Beginning in 2002, those who don't pass the reading section may have to repeat the fourth grade.

        Thirty-six kindergartners take part in Jump Start, in groups of 12.

        During Jump Start time, they focus on reading and writing skills. Some days they work on letter identification, word-matching or letter formation. Other days they work on reading comprehension and fine motor skills.

Higher standards
               Part of the reason for Jump Start is tougher state standards that are creeping down into kindergarten. Schools realize they have to go beyond half-day kindergarten to help kids at risk.

        “The pressure of the Ohio Proficiency Test really starts here,” Ms. Larson said. “We're responsible for laying the groundwork.”

        Research on the effectiveness of full-day kindergarten has been hard to come by, according to the Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

        Recent studies, though, support the effectiveness of all-day kindergarten where learning is developmentally appropriate for a wide range of students. But a number of factors come into play, such as quality of teaching, group size and curriculum.

        Though full-day kindergarten is offered in districts such as Cincinnati and Covington, not all experts are convinced a full day of school is right for every 5-year-old.

        “A full day should have continuity,” said Dominic F. Gullo, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin. “If what goes on in the afternoon is a totally different program, it would not be as beneficial as when connections are made.”

Limited funding
               In Lebanon, money factors into the decision on whether to offer all-day kindergarten.

        The district would like to offer an optional all-day program for kids who need extra help, but cannot afford it, said Superintendent Bill Sears.

        Ohio provides funding for half-day kindergarten in all public school districts but provides assistance for full-day programs only in high-poverty districts, said Ohio Department of Education Spokeswoman Dottie Howe. The decision then is left up to the district.

        Out of 612 Ohio school districts, 221 offer full-day kindergarten. In Kentucky, 623 out of 798 districts offer full-day kindergarten.

        But whether they have the money or not, schools still have to meet tougher standards — a difficult task when kindergarten students have a wide developmental range.

        Lebanon school officials believe the optional intervention program may be the best solution.

        “I don't know if all-day kindergarten is good for all kids,” Mr. Sears said. “Some children do their best learning in a nonstructured way.”

Success stories
               Parents of Jump Start kids have hope for the program and say they already see a difference.

        At the beginning of the year, Anna Sargent had been blaming herself that her son Alex was behind his kindergarten classmates in identifying letters and numbers. She was apprehensive about the full-day intervention program but decided to give it a try.

        Nine weeks into Jump Start, Alex can identify some numbers and letters. And he's learning how to write his name.

        “He's really positive and now enjoys reading books,” Ms. Sargent said.

        Some kids don't mind coming to school for the extra time but others do.

        Theresa Gilliam has twins in kindergarten but only her son is in Jump Start. He had been having trouble with letter and number recognition and with attentiveness, Ms. Gilliam said.

        She worried about sending just Logan to the intervention program but is happy with the preliminary results.

        “Now he's doing his ABCs with me,” Ms. Gilliam said. “I think for Logan this was good.”

        Five-year-old Dakota Ramey,who had trouble with writing his name and rhyming at the beginning of the year, said he'd rather be home.

        But after weeks of practicing, he was sure proud of one thing, saying: “I can write my name.”


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