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MO: Pre-kindergarten advantage sets stage for student success


Students at Jefferson work on their reading skills.

Summary: A tiny rural Missouri district with an enrollment that's one-third economically disadvantaged uses home visits by a pre-kindergarten teacher, biweekly pre-kindergarten playgroups, community volunteers, a focus on language arts, and innovative approaches to professional development and instruction to graduate all of its students from high school on time and send almost three-quarters of them on to college.

On their eighty-five acres of rolling farmland in northwest Missouri, Vickie and Steve Stoll tend to their cows and hay—and to young sons Nicholas and Zachary. The farm is thriving and so are the kids, who have benefited from an early start on reading and writing. The Stoll boys’ love of learning is no accident. It is a direct result of their school district's innovative approach to literacy development, beginning in pre-kindergarten and extending through elementary school.

A few years ago, "it was kind of exciting” to get their first home visit from pre-kindergarten teacher Marilyn Cotter, recalls Vickie Stoll. Cotter sat with Nicholas and asked him about shapes and colors. Later “Mrs. Cotter would read a book to him, ask him to look at a picture, and think what he thought the story would say.”

District characteristics
Name: Jefferson Elementary
State: Missouri
Type: Rural
Grades: Pre-k–6
Enrollment: 88
Students per teacher: 9

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 40%
English language learners: n.a.
Students with disabilities: n.a.
White: 100%
Black: n.a.
Hispanic: n.a.
Asian/Pacific Islander: n.a.
American Indian/Alaska Native: n.a.
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com

Learning early in life, with good reinforcement at home, helps students at Jefferson Elementary develop a love of reading and writing and sets the stage for student success. (One hundred percent of the district's high school students graduate on time and almost seventy-two percent go on to two- and four-year colleges and universities.) (2005-2006 Jefferson C–123 School District School Accountability Report Card.)

As part of its pre-kindergarten program, Jefferson runs a playgroup (mostly three-year-olds) every other Friday. The children begin learning the social skills of working and playing in a group, thus preparing them for the formal pre-kindergarten class, which meets four days a week. Once in school, students continue to thrive and good parental and community support reinforces that. When kindergarteners are learning the letter "D,” they have Donuts with Dad day (and later for "M,” Muffins with Mom). Shelley Deen, sixth-grade teacher, notes that in programs like Read Across America, "We always have volunteers. There's never a child who doesn't have someone sitting beside them, a family member or someone else.”

On a weekly basis, students in the upper elementary grades—fifth- and sixth-graders—e-mail updates to adult ePals that include monks from the nearby Conception Abbey and Seminary, nuns from Benedictine Convent, and other community members, informing them about such things as how the elementary school basketball team is doing. Each student uses a handheld Palm for drafting thoughts during the week, and on Friday, they download for teacher review.

Throughout the year, teachers have developed a variety of language arts activities to hone students' skills. Sixth graders produce a quarterly newspaper, making up questions and conducting interviews about different classroom events. Three times a year on Write Night, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first graders author their own books, such as the ever-popular "story of my life” (including scanned-in photos from home) or tales and drawings about favorite animals.

When challenges pop up, staff study groups provide an effective format for exploring what might work best in individual classrooms. For example, one study group read and discussed the book, Strategies That Work (Harvey and Goudvis 2000), applied some of the concepts, and saw higher levels of reading comprehension in their students. "We knew we had students having trouble with comprehension,” says principal Jane Walter, recalling one third-grader "who was very fluent, but had no clue what the words meant.” The teacher began asking her to make sticky notes connecting the words to ideas, such as "I remember seeing Niagara Falls.” The notes helped the student visualize.

A small, rural school with forty percent low-income students, Jefferson Elementary is about one-hundred miles north of Kansas City, serving students from the little towns of Conception, Clyde, and Conception Junction, as well as kids from surrounding farms. The school is posting solid student achievement, thanks in part to pre-kindergarten classes, extra reading programs, and community involvement.

In 2005, Jefferson received a National NCLB Blue Ribbon Award and Missouri Gold Star Award. The Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) ranks Missouri's highest performing schools in terms of the percentage of students scoring at the "proficient” and "advanced” levels in communication arts and math. Jefferson Elementary made the list in three categories: 91.7 percent in fifth grade communication arts, and 90.9 percent in sixth grade communication arts, and also math.

In 2007, Jefferson was given national recognition and attention as a Distinguished Title I school. The Title I program serves low-income children in need of extra academic support in reading, math, and science. Jefferson was recognized not only for its academic success, but for its innovation and success in going beyond academics "to improve citizenship, character, enjoyment of the arts, and community spirit” (National Association of State Title I Directors).

Success with Title I students comes mainly from "just getting them started off right,” says principal Walter, "to boost whatever skills they are lacking.” In pre-kindergarten, that might mean rhyming activities, "to wake up that awareness.” In kindergarten, it might mean extra work on identifying sounds of letters. "We know it's not one magic bullet, but a combination of things,” says Walter, including small class sizes, community support, work ethic of teachers, pre-kindergarten classes, and getting an early start through the program for three-year-olds.

Since so many students have spent their whole school careers here, it's easy to take a look at the 2007 senior class to see how the early years have paid off. Nine of the ten seniors were playing with blocks together back in the school district's very first pre-k class, fourteen years ago, recalls senior Logan Schieber. Now he's in band and Future Farmers of America, is starting pitcher for the state champ fast-pitch softball team, and is owner of a solid GPA. As Schieber walks across the graduation stage in the high school gym, he's also coming to another milestone: Bound for Northwest Missouri State University in the fall, with the benefit of years of preparation, and the blessings of this tight-knit community.

Lessons learned
  •  "Our professional development has changed from sending people off to workshops,” says veteran principal Jane Walter, "to working together as a staff to develop strategies that work for us.”
  •  "The administration is supportive of the ways we teach,” says Renee Wilcox, fifth grade teacher. "They give us the freedom to adapt and they support our professional development.”
  • After-school tutoring builds momentum. The state of Missouri has a career ladder with extra pay that is directly related to student progress and before- and after-school efforts. At different stages of experience, teachers can earn from $1,500 to $5,000 more, depending on the number of hours spent in before- and after-school work.
  • Tracking progress helps boost achievement. Walter says several teachers do "running records,” listening to kids read one page, marking mistakes, timing them, and seeing how can improve. A different test call DIBELS pinpoints specific skills that K-3 youngsters may be missing in reading, such as "r”-controlled vowel sounds. In a one-on-one situation, the teacher listens to a student read and then does specific tests.


Jane Walter
(660) 944-2316

This story was written by Elaine Furlow, a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.

Posted: June 25, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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