A kindergarten boost

How do you get a bunch of munchkins on the road to academic success? Washoe County has a plan

Kirsten Nichols and Humberto Vasques watch as their teacher counts pennies from a jar.

Kirsten Nichols and Humberto Vasques watch as their teacher counts pennies from a jar.

Photo By David Robert

To sign a child up for one of Washoe County’s new preschool classes, call one of three participating elementary schools: Desert Heights, Rita Cannan or Smithridge.

Kindergarten teachers face a tough task at any school. Different backgrounds mean pupils can have a wide range of skills. Some 5-year-olds write their names. Others can’t tell the difference between letters and numbers. Some do simple addition and subtraction. Others can’t count to 10.

Some read a few simple words. Others don’t speak English at all.

“I’ve heard stories of children who don’t know which way to hold a book, don’t know which direction is up on the page,” says Steve Mulvenon, a media liaison for the Washoe County School District.

The problem is compounded in schools designated to be at-risk, where many of the children come from families in which literacy and reading aren’t highly valued, Mulvenon says. When it comes time for kindergarten, students who have limited language skills are already behind. And spending 2 1/2 hours per day in a classroom with more than 20 other pupils—even with a gifted, loving teacher—may not be making enough of a difference.

That’s why teachers in 17 of the counties’ at-risk schools may see the kindergarten school day extended by 30 minutes. And, if a proposal to start a new pilot program is approved by the state legislature, these teachers will get some extra help from roving teams of reading and math instructors.

In one of several bill drafts to be presented during this legislative session, the school district asks for $1.9 million to kick off the pilot program. The money would cover additional training and planning hours for kindergarten teachers and an additional eight math and reading specialists. Four teams of two teachers would spend one day a week in each of the 17 schools, giving pupils an added boost in reading and math.

The program would also allow schools to hire an assistant kindergarten teacher for each classroom at the 17 schools. Now, schools only qualify for assistants when class sizes exceed about 36 kids.

“This [proposal asks], ‘Why do we have to pack extra kids into a school to get extra help?'” Mulvenon says.

About 20 5- and 6-year-olds file into Judi Stone’s afternoon kindergarten class at Bernice Mathews Elementary School. The school serves as an example of what can be done with year-round school, smaller classes and teachers’ aides. The kids hang up their coats and sign their names on a large sheet of white paper. They pledge allegiance to the flag and sing a friendly song:

“I am a person, a very nice person. I like you, and you like me.”

Then the kindergartners line up around a large blue and red rug, with printed letters and numbers, for a quick game of Who’s Got the Letter? Stone sings the ABC song as she passes out one large letter printed on an orange rectangle to each student.

“Who’s got R?”

“I have R,” boasts 5-year-old Hector Castrellor with a grin. He flips his card so everyone can see his letter.

Hector Castrellor Jr. reaches for the day of the week in his kindergarten class at Bernice Mathews Elementary School. Hector’s teacher, Judi Stone, says her pupils are calmer this year, with longer days and smaller classes.

Photo By David Robert

Last year, Stone says, there wasn’t enough room around the rug for all the children. Some had to stand behind others. It was harder to make sure all the kids were getting a chance to participate. Harder to keep everyone’s attention. And extremely difficult to keep every pupil learning.

But Stone’s not complaining too much about last year. She had help. Some kindergarten teachers in Washoe County schools are on their own.

“There are a lot of teachers out there who don’t have any help,” she says. She points to the wall and photos of 43 students—the combined total of her morning and afternoon classes. “That’s how many I’d have had in one class. Without help, I’d be teaching second grade now. I’d have moved out [of kindergarten].”

Sure, going to preschool helps prepare a child for academic success in kindergarten. But many parents can’t afford preschool or even a day care that includes some preschool instruction.

In Washoe County, Head Start offers preschool to kids whose parents’ incomes are 150 percent below national poverty lines. A single mother making $11,250 qualifies for help. A single mother making $13,000 makes too much money to qualify, says Head Start Director Lynn Houghton.

And qualifying for the program doesn’t always mean access to Head Start’s services. Houghton says that about 100 qualifying families are on a waiting list to get into Head Start. And the Community Services program that runs Head Start doesn’t even promote the services.

This week, the school district began offering additional preschool programs at Rita Cannan and Desert Heights elementary schools. Instruction also begins at Smithridge Elementary School later this month.

“We’re looking forward to the program, because it offers all students a learning opportunity,” says Rita Hemmert, WCSD’s kindergarten coordinator.

So far, the schools have relied on word-of-mouth to let parents know about the program. Any child is welcome to come to the classes, Hemmert says, but parents need to provide transportation. The program’s schedule varies based on the elementary schools’ schedules.

The preschool project dovetails into the school district’s proposed pilot program for longer school days and extra teaching help in kindergarten classrooms. And though it may not sound like much, a half-hour can make a big difference, instructors say.

“I think that part of the difference is that it gives each child more time to acquire language,” Hemmert says. “Children need a lot of language in order to read and understand things being said to them. Their minds are being stimulated with a variety of related topics that set a foundation for their education.”

On a shorter schedule, teachers feel rushed through reading and play activities, Stone says. Zipping through reading, math and role-playing activities just isn’t conducive to learning.

“Kindergartners need those experiences,” Stone says.

This year, the extra half-hour makes a big difference, both in learning and in the classroom’s feel, she says.

“It’s given the kids a bit more individual time," she says. "And we’re calmer. And the kids are calmer."