Education

New Boise pre-K puts young minds in gear to learn

Blessing Ngabontiza with his morning snack at the new pre-K program at Hawthorne Elementary School in Boise. Officials will be testing students to see how they do when they get to kindergarten.
Blessing Ngabontiza with his morning snack at the new pre-K program at Hawthorne Elementary School in Boise. Officials will be testing students to see how they do when they get to kindergarten. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Grace Ruddy gives her 3- and 4-year-old preschool students a Big Idea to think about every day.

“The Big Idea is, ‘I see with my eyes,’ ” she told them one day this week.

“I see you,” Peyton Braun responded immediately.

“I see some cookies,” said Gavin Cross.

Ruddy’s Big Idea is one element in an extensive curriculum that encompasses math, science, literacy and learning how to get along in kindergarten. She has rolled out the curriculum since her preschool class at Hawthorne Elementary School in Boise started three weeks ago.

The preschool is a community partnership. With a combination of city tax money and private dollars — including $50,000 from United Way and $25,000 from the Micron Foundation — the Boise School District and the city of Boise launched the Boise Pre K Project to put early childhood learning back in Hawthorne classrooms for the first time since 2011, when cuts forced the district to abandon it.

The latest drive to expand pre-K learning comes as advocates prepare to ask lawmakers to abandon their long-held resistance to putting state dollars into preschool education. A proposal to expand kindergarten to a full day, on a voluntary basis for students who need the extra help, is also surfacing in time for lawmakers to consider it when the Legislature meets in January.

Supporters say the early start gives children cures many ills, from reducing dropout rates to lowering crime rates to producing economically productive members of society.

“This issue is not going away,” said Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education, a group of active and retired corporate leaders advocating for more pre-K learning.

WHAT’S HAPPENING AT HAWTHORNE AND WHITNEY?

Ruddy never stops imparting information to her students, even when they think they are just playing.

When it comes time to pick a child who will lead the others to P.E. class, she pulls a name out of a small treasure box and asks students to read it.

She gathers students around her, cross-legged on the floor, and asks them which pairs of words rhyme.

When she says “let” and “set,” hands shoot up in the air.

Ruddy teaches two classes each day to nearly 40 students at Hawthorne, located in the Vista neighborhood on the Boise Bench. Another instructor works with 20 students at nearby Whitney Elementary School.

“What we are trying to accomplish here ... is to get kids ready to learn in kindergarten,” said Ruddy, who taught in the district’s first preschool beginning in 2004.

Activities go beyond rhyming and word recognition.

Students can spend part of the day in a sensory area, playing with water pouring over a rotating water wheel. Others make shapes with cookie cutters. Some get a super-close look at sea shells.

“We really believe children learn best when they are engaged and they are learning by doing, be feeling, by playing and experiencing these things, so it is not just us telling them what to do,” Ruddy said.

‘ENERGIZE OUR NEIGHBORHOOD’

The two schools were chosen as pilots for the Boise Pre-K Project because they are located where the city is launching its “Energize Our Neighborhood” project. The larger project includes a greater police presence, improving several intersections with no stop signs or stoplights, and looking for ways to bring neighborhood residents closer together.

The Vista neighborhood is divided by Vista Avenue. Both schools have high numbers of low-income students, one indicator that the school’s overall learning might lag.

Students come with a variety of abilities, but many of them need an extra boost before they start kindergarten, Ruddy said.

But learning isn’t just between teacher and students. Parents must volunteer at the school as well.

Students will be tracked through test scores to see how well they perform when they enter kindergarten, and even how many Advanced Placement classes they take when they get into high school, school leaders say.

In the preschool programs’ first few weeks, students are engaged and eager to get to school, parents says.

Amie Devine says her son Levi loves the classes. “I see him excited to talk about what he has learned at school,” she said.

WILL THE STATE JOIN BANDWAGON?

For months, preschool advocates have toiled, talking and reshaping a plan to get state support in Idaho.

The plan, called the Idaho School Readiness Act, could go to lawmakers in January. The question is: Will lawmakers relegate it to the same trash heap as every other preschool plan?

Idaho doesn’t allow state money to be spent on educating children younger than 5. Many lawmakers say early childhood education is a family affair and the state needs to put its resources into public schools.

But advocates such as Gramer and Beth Oppenheimer, executive director for the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, have crafted a proposal they think will appeal to lawmakers.

It starts at the grass roots, where communities would start the work of creating schools and then ask the state for some backing. It also brings in support for parents who want to be the early childhood teachers and keep their kids at home. Lastly, it would provide technology-based preschool instruction online to families who favor that option over a brick-and-mortar school.

“We think this is a plan that touches at all the Idaho values,” Gramer said. “It’s the best plan the Legislature is going to see.”

While some lawmakers might be wary of jumping into early childhood education, State Rep Christy Perry, R-Nampa, is not.

The third-term lawmaker serves on the Health and Welfare Committee and the Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee. She sees a “common thread” to many of the costly problems that the Health and Welfare Department and Idaho’s prison system deal with: “People who have fallen through the cracks in the education system and never got a good start to begin with,” she said. “I want to start looking from the very beginning. I absolutely have come to believe that early childhood (education) is very vital.”

Advocates don’t have a price tag for the bill or its several elements. In Mississippi, for example, the Legislature budgeted $3 million for a less-ambitious preschool initiative that concentrated on creating community-based preschools in just under a dozen communities.

ADDRESSING LEGISLATOR CONCERNS

Gramer hopes Perry will carry the bill when the Legislature convenes next year. Perry hasn’t signed off on that yet but said she would work for its passage.

Moreover, Perry thinks the Legislature might be changing its mind on early education.

She sees the greatest problem that lawmakers have is how to help families but not intrude on their values. The School Readiness Act is voluntary and provides a variety of choices for how families may get help in educating their preschoolers, Perry said.

“It makes a statement that the state thinks early childhood education is so important, it wants to encourage that,” Perry said.

Choice could be key. Backers are counting on the home-based technology piece of the bill to get support from lawmakers who don’t want to limit pre-K to public schools.

“There are a lot of different ways to help prepare kids for kindergarten,” said Emily McClure, a Boise attorney and lobbyist representing Upstart, a tech-based learning program. “Some parents want to keep their kids at home, some in a child-care center.”

Upstart is part of the Waterford Institute, a Utah nonprofit center that has long sold instructional software to K-12 schools. Upstart could end up bidding on a project to provide home-based services in Idaho, if a bill passes.

The home-tech plan would provide families with instruction and a laptop, with a reduced cost for Internet service.

McClure helped draft the legislation on the home-tech portion of the bill. “The idea is to get parents as many choices as possible,” she said.

Bill Roberts, the Statesman’s education reporter, has covered Idaho classroom innovations and experiments since the 1990s. 208-377-6408, @IDS_BillRoberts

How to get into Boise Pre K

The Hawthorne Elementary program has two openings for preschool students who live in the school’s attendance zone. The school will hold a screening on Dec.18. The screening also will create a waiting list for future openings this school year. To set up a screening time, call Hawthorne at 854-5000.

Would full-day kindergarten make better students?

Idaho’s State Board of Education is backing a plan to create voluntary full-day kindergarten for students struggling with reading.

The recommendation bubbled up from a committee of Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education. The board reviewed the recommendation and put it on its legislative agenda, said Blake Youde, BOE spokesman.

Behind the idea is the notion that schools could use an additional tool to help lagging readers catch up right from the beginning of their education, said Debbie Critchfield, a board member.

“If we are going to have any lasting long-term (student) success, we really need to focus on the primary grades,” she said.

Last year about 20 percent of kindergarteners — 4,000 students — struggled with reading, based on the Idaho Reading Indicator, a short test given to students. If all those students had taken full-day kindergarten, Youde said, it would have cost the state a little more than $9 million.

Kindergarten is not required in Idaho. The idea behind the newest recommendation is to make full-day kindergarten available to schools that want it.

Backers of an early childhood education bill to provide community-based pre-K programs don’t see this proposal as a conflict.

“If we can get more 4-year-olds learning how to read, it is going to reduce the need for costly remediation in kindergarten,” said Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education.

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