Most of Roosevelt Elementary School in Vancouver was still this week, as were most Clark County schools two weeks before the start of the new school year. A few teachers sorted through boxes, setting up their classrooms for the coming onslaught of kids.
But one wing of the school on Falk Road already bustled with activity.
Young children sang a song about making pizza in one room. Another group sounded out letters projected onto a screen. In the hallway, a few kids practiced writing their names.
The school year was in full swing for these fledgling kindergartners, as it is for about 500 kids in Vancouver. The young children are benefiting from a program called Jump Start, which covers the 16 schools with the highest average poverty rates in the Vancouver district.
The program has existed in some form since 2005, when officials from Vancouver Public Schools started using Title I funds to pay for early school days for incoming kindergartners at high-poverty schools. Title I funds contain federal money set aside for low-income students.
For the first time this summer, Vancouver extended that Jump Start period for those schools that have full-day kindergarten paid for by the state, which are those with the lowest average family incomes. Six of the 16 schools in the program started classes on Aug. 6. All schools will end Jump Start on Aug. 30, a few days before the official start of the school year on Sept. 5.
A grant from the nonprofit Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools is making up the difference between the nine days of extra time paid for from federal money and the 19 days taught at the six schools, which include Roosevelt.
The district wrote a special curriculum for these six, said Effie Triol, the coordinator of the Jump Start program. It trained the 18 teachers in those six schools to deliver the curriculum, which will bring the students up to speed for their first year in public school.
Different students arrive in kindergarten with vastly different skill sets, said Marianne Thompson, the chief of elementary education in the district. Some know how to read entire books, while others can't sound out letters yet.
Children from low-income families often are at a disadvantage. Kids from middle-class families know four times as many words as do those from low-income families, according to information from the National Center for Children in Poverty.
Participation in Jump Start is voluntary. The district sent out invitations to the program to every parent who registered a child for kindergarten. There is no busing available for the program, so some parents called and said they'd be unable to send their children, said Triol, the coordinator.
More than half of the invited children showed up for school in August, Thompson said.
At Roosevelt this week, teacher Emilly Minsker led a group of about 12 youngsters across a page of letters. She pointed at a screen that displayed the letters R, N, Y and E in various combinations and had the class sound them out together. The Jump Start curriculum gets children started on 14 letters of the alphabet, Triol said. These letters were chosen because they're easiest to learn for young children and because there wouldn't be time for the whole ABC at the rate of one letter per day, she said.
In another room, teacher Tammi Hoffman finished the pizza song with her group.
"Here's our animal for the day," she said, pointing at a picture of a cow. "What's our new letter for today?"
The children made a "kah" sound while Hoffman stuck a big "C" on the board.
Students are given tests on the first day to see how many letters they know and if they can write their names, Triol said. Those who can't write their names are pulled out of the group at intervals and given one-on-one attention at a desk in the hallway, where they practice writing.
As part of a statewide program, all elementary schools will be required to test kindergartners this fall. Vancouver school officials expect that Jump Start will lift the results of those tests.
And the kids aren't just learning letters — they learn how to be in school and away from their parents in small doses. Their days in Jump Start run 9-11 a.m. and they're alone in the new school, without those intimidating fifth-graders and hundreds of other students around them.
Being able to acclimate in quiet surroundings is expected to decrease anxiety among the youngest students on Sept. 5, Triol said.