HOCKINSON — In groups of four, Shawn Spears ushered his young students to choose their adventure in the classroom Tuesday afternoon. Drawing, playing with dinosaurs, practicing cutting shapes — it didn’t matter, so long as they were engaging in what most piqued their interest.
“This is way more about exposure than mastery,” said school Principal Joshua Robertson as he watched his students at Hockinson Heights Elementary School explore their options for the day.
Spears’ class is one of four transitional kindergarten classes at the school. Known as “TK,” the yearlong program boosts learning for students who missed the kindergarten age cutoff or need help in a few areas before jumping into elementary school. Each class has a hard cap of 18 students.
“(Transitional kindergarten) is an absolute game-changer,” said Sears, who has taught preschool through second grade. “It’s been rolled out beautifully. Giving teachers a voice in developing learning standards that are specifically geared to our area is huge.”
Promising data to fill gaps
The Hockinson School District, though one of the smallest districts in the area with 2,025 students this year, is the biggest provider of transitional kindergarten in Clark County, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Battle Ground Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools are close behind.
Robertson said adding transitional kindergarten in fall 2021 filled a need for early learning options and helped kindergartners who were struggling at school from day one.
“We’re in an interesting spot…(other districts) all have programs in early learning like Head Start and (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs) but we don’t have that in our area,” Robertson said. “We want to even the playing field when they get to kindergarten, that’s why we went after it.”
Data shared earlier this month by OSPI showed that students who moved through transitional kindergarten excelled in kindergarten the following year.
“Compared to their peers who did not participate in TK, kindergartners who had a TK experience are 13 percent more likely to meet the kindergarten readiness standard in literacy,” said a Feb. 1 press release from OSPI. “Students with disabilities with a TK experience are 42 percent more likely to be kindergarten-ready in literacy, multilingual/English learners are 33 percent more likely, and students identified as low-income are 29 percent more likely.”
OSPI reported that 85.4 percent of kindergarten students who were previously enrolled in transitional kindergarten met readiness standards in literacy, compared with 75.7 percent among students who weren’t in transitional kindergarten. The same trend goes for math, where 73.9 percent of students who were previously enrolled in transitional kindergarten met readiness standards, compared with 67.2 percent among students who weren’t.
In Hockinson, Robertson said 45 of their kindergartners were in transitional kindergarten last year; 42 of those 45 were identified as meeting every standard in the state’s six areas of proficiency: social-emotional, physical, cognitive, language, literacy and mathematics.
With a total of 885 students Hockinson Heights is the biggest elementary school in Clark County. The transitional kindergarten program, however, doesn’t manage to get lost in that maze: It has its own separate building with four classrooms connected by a central meeting area where students have breakfast in the mornings and keep their stuff organized in cubbies.
In the classroom, most of the day is dedicated to the guided exploration that Robertson and Sears laud as being particularly important for young students to gain experience in socializing and finding out what makes sense to them.
“We want students to naturally encounter disagreements so we can help work them through it instead of just solving everything for them,” Robertson said. “And usually, there aren’t a ton of behavioral issues because the kids are just doing what they want to do.”
Every few hours, Sears calls his students to come together for a 10-minute group lesson, where they touch on basic lessons in reading and writing letters, repeating sounds in language, and, of course, politely debating their preference between nachos and tacos.
For the record: Tacos saw nearly unanimous support.
“The way that these kids grow is amazing. … I wish I could teach kindergarten like this,” said Ashley Crowley, another transitional kindergarten teacher at Hockinson Heights as she prepared for her students to return from lunch.
The play-based model, she and Robertson said, has been so effective that they’re planning on tweaking the normal kindergarten model next year to have every class lead with such exploratory periods before moving to more academic focuses.
“That focus on socializing is really key for kids at this age,” Robertson said. “Parents can definitely help out with academics at home, but this is where they can come to interact with other kids their age.”