Kindergarteners get a head start

State program helps teacher better understand individual students

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photoVictoria Espino yawns Wednesday as she stands with her kindergarten classmates as they wait to go outside for recess at Campbell Hill Elementary in Renton.

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RENTON — Becky Bennion has been wiping runny noses and teaching kids to read for 30 years.

The Renton kindergarten teacher says the children haven't changed much but society's expectations about what a 5-year-old should know has evolved dramatically.

That's one reason she is grateful for a new state program that helps her get to know students before they step into the classroom. Washington's new WaKIDS program, which stands for Washington kindergarten inventory of developing skills, is designed to help kindergarten teachers better understand the strengths and weaknesses of children.

The $2.75 million program, including private dollars, is in more than 300 schools in 102 of the state's 294 school districts, including every school with free all-day kindergarten. In the fall, those schools hold individual parent-teacher meetings before school starts, as well as take a more formal assessment of each child's abilities -- from staying on task to standing in line and doing simple math -- during the first six weeks.

The assessment helps teachers group students by ability, get extra help for those who need it and gives the state a better idea of how well prepared 5- and 6-year-olds are to learn to read, write and do math by the time they finish kindergarten.

It makes a difference

At Bennion's school, Campbell Hill Elementary in the poorest corner of the Renton School District, the three kindergarten teachers spend the first two days of the school year meeting with parents before regular class begin.

For the past two years, the third day of school has been much more productive, Bennion said.

"It really did make a difference, to group kids more quickly and approach their individual needs," she said. "A lot of the parents I met with didn't know how much we expected at the end of kindergarten. ... Kindergarten is like first grade was seven or eight years ago."

Her goal is to identify the children who are going to need extra help and intervene before they fall behind.

The fall 2012 statewide kindergarten data showed many 5- and 6-year-olds do not have the skills expected for kids entering school prepared to face such demands. The biggest deficit was in math. Only 52 percent of the 21,811 kids tested have the math abilities they are expected to have when they start school.

"What this data is showing us is that some of these challenges begin very early," said Kathe Taylor, director of early learning at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Representatives of Thrive by Five Washington, a nonprofit focused on improving early learning, believe this information is just the beginning of an expected avalanche of new data to help improve public schools.

"We have to, as a community, be thinking about this," said Molly Boyajian, policy director at Thrive by Five.

Washington was one of just nine states to get a federal Race to the Top grant in late 2011 for early learning work, in large part because of its work with WAkids. The $60 million will be used to expand both the kindergarten readiness assessments and a quality rating system for private preschool programs.

Students are benefitting

Teachers who are already using this new kindergarten readiness test say all their students are benefiting from the way they can now quickly differentiate their needs.

Kristi Dominguez, who coordinates the WaKIDS program in the Bellingham School District, told lawmakers at a hearing last month that the immediacy of the information has allowed teachers to get fast, specific help for kids.

The greatest challenge is how much time it takes, she said.

It also makes it obvious that kids need some kind of instruction before they come to kindergarten, because some are scoring at the 3-year-old level when they enter school, said Krissy Para, kindergarten teacher at Helen B. Stafford Elementary in Tacoma.

This information will be useful to many people, including parents of future kindergarteners, as well as preschool and child care teachers, said OSPI's Taylor.

"As we move down this path, we'll be thinking about parent-friendly materials that will help parents think about the ways they can be of assistance to their children and what is typical to expect," Taylor said.

The state's new WaKIDS program also encourages preschool teachers to participate in the before school conversations between parents and kindergarten teachers.

Including preschool teachers also sends information in the other direction so early educators learn what public schoolteachers are seeing in their students and where preschool could help fill in gaps, said Bob Hamilton, deputy director of the state Department of Early Learning.