Getting a jump on kindergarten: Preparation programs find a home in Boise schools

Autumn Reese drew an R on the board for her students to see.

“Let’s practice making an R with our finger,” she said.

Twenty-five 4- and 5-year-olds responded, putting their index fingers in the air.

Reese’s lesson was only moments long, but those moments were important to help the students prepare for kindergarten, which they will be attending in Boise schools beginning Aug. 24.

Reese will be a special education teacher this fall at Shadow Hills Elementary School in west Boise. She has spent the last four weeks teaching the Boise School District’s Kindergarten Readiness class to students at Horizon Elementary School at 730 N. Mitchell St. near Emerald Street.

“They develop a love for learning and feel more prepared,” she said.

The Boise School District is in its second summer of offering Kindergarten Readiness on its own, after the United Way of Treasure Valley funded a similar class for three years. The district is using $36,000 in taxpayer funds to teach 119 children at four elementary schools, said Ann Farris, district regional director for the Boise High School area . The children are spending nearly four hours a day, five days a week, for four weeks ending Friday.

State law prohibits schools from spending state money on early childhood education. The Boise district gets its money through a local property tax that dates back to before Idaho was a state. Most Idaho school districts lack that taxing authority.

Some students are identified by teachers at kindergarten registration each spring as candidates who would benefit from a quick dose of prekindergarten prep. In other cases, parents seek to enroll their children, said Jessica Cromie, summer school principal at Horizon. Parents are not charged .

Kindergarten Readiness is one approach the district is taking to help prepare preschool children. In November, the district also plans to launch two preschools — at Hawthorne Elementary and Whitney Elementary in the Vista neighborhood — in a partnership with the city.

Supporters of state-funded preschool are working on a proposal for the 2016 Legislature to pay for preschool in other communities. Idaho Business for Education and other early childhood education advocacy groups are drafting the Idaho School Readiness Act. Lawmakers have balked at such proposals in the past, saying early learning is a responsibility of the family and the state must focus its resources on public schools. The new bill proposed community-based preschools, not state-mandated ones — an approach that might win over lawmakers.

Boise schools are motivated to add prekindergarten programs by data showing that 36 percent of district children entering kindergarten — about 600 per year — lack basic readiness skills. That is based on the Idaho Reading Indicator, a short test to determine whether a student can read on grade level. Statewide, the lack-of-readiness level is nearly 50 percent.

Schools can be frustrating for those children, said Stacey Roth, Boise’s administrator of student programs. “They face feeling like they have to catch up already,” she said. “We want it to be positive and fun.”

Reese, the summer school teacher at Horizon, spent part of a recent morning reading to students about what to expect in kindergarten.

In “Pete the Cat: Rocking In My School Shoes,” a cat takes her students on a tour through a school — the library, the lunch room, the playground, the bus.

For a math lesson, children may have six objects in front of them, so they begin to understand what the number 6 means.

“We have songs we sing to count,” Reese said. “We want to make sure they understand what numbers represent.”

Besides learning about letters and numbers, Kindergarten Readiness students learn about what to do and how to behave in school. They learn to stand in line, use scissors and glue, take directions from a teacher and listen.

“Kids who have been here have had a month’s worth of practice at that,” said Jessica Cromie, Horizon’s summer school principal. “So they are gong to be leaders (for) their peers.

“Our hope for the students is really that they are prepared for kindergarten and ready to start the year.”