York Daily Record: One Class Could Make Big Difference in York City
By Angie Mason 4/14/16

Students in Nicole Reed’s pre-kindergarten class sat “criss cross applesauce” while she began reading them a story about a chick that imitates other barnyard animals.

“This little chick from over the way went to play with the pigs one day,” she began. Students chimed in on a line that repeated throughout the book. “And what do you think they heard him say?”

Reed asked questions as she paged through the story. What sound does a chick make? What letter does “ribbit” start with? What do you think the chick is going to say?

While Reed guided students through the book, co-teacher Ciara Sweeney sat on the floor with them, jotting down notes about which ones seemed to be picking up the various skills.

Pre-kindergarten class looks like fun. There’s singing, dancing and playing. But there’s a learning goal behind most every activity, and York City school officials believe it pays off — and they’re hoping to see evidence of that in third grade classrooms in a few years. That’s one of the key measurements the district will use to see if its efforts to improve students’ education, laid out in its recovery plan, are working.

What’s the district doing

The York City School District has been pushing to expand pre-kindergarten, with a goal of one day providing the program for all York City children. The district expanded its offerings to have 12 classrooms this year, serving about half of children who will head to kindergarten, and the district hopes to add another classroom next year. Some of the district’s classrooms are funded by state Pre-K Counts grants, and some are paid for with district funds.

The pre-k expansion relates to one of the academic goals laid out in the district’s new recovery plan: improving third-grade literacy.

Before third grade, students are learning to read. Starting in third grade, they begin using their reading skills to learn.

“If we don’t build these literacy skills early … then those students will be at a disadvantage,” said York City School District Supt. Eric Holmes.

In 2018-19, this year’s pre-kindergarten students will be in third grade. By June 2019, the district aims to close the gap between its third-grade reading scores and the state average. That gap stands at about 42 percentage points now.

Third grade is the first year students take mandated state reading and math tests, and in urban environments around the country, it’s also where schools start to see student achievement begin to fall, Holmes said.

Offering the children pre-kindergarten would give the district one more year to catch them up and get them on track by third grade.

Like everything, expanding pre-kindergarten takes money. A pre-k classroom for 19 students costs about $161,500.

Holmes said the district supports Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to increase early education funding. Pre-kindergarten is usually considered to have bipartisan support, but how much more the state should spend there is debated. Wolf had initially sought an increase of $120 million for Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs for 2015-16, but the partial budget adopted in December included a $30 million increase for those items.

The school district is committed to expanding pre-kindergarten either way, Holmes said, and will use general funds if necessary. But if the state put more toward pre-k, that would allow the district to use its general fund dollars for other student-centered programs, he said.

Getting ready to read

In a third-grade classroom at Hannah Penn K-8 School, Ella Alsentzer asked her students if they remembered what an adverb is.

“It describes a verb,” a student called out.

“Perfect!” Alsentzer answered. Students began going through sentences, looking for adverbs and discussing their meaning as they went.

Soon they turned to their textbooks, where they learned the word “voyage” — is a trip to Target a voyage? How about to California? — and took turns reading paragraphs.

Third grade is when students begin putting together their skills to start to comprehend what they’re reading, Alsentzer said. They’re no longer just learning to sound out words, but rather putting those words together to understand meaning. They need to be able to answer context questions about what the’re reading.

Getting the students there starts early.

In Reed’s pre-kindergarten class at Devers, students took turns sitting at a desk and writing the letters of their first names on a piece of paper, while their classmates danced and sang with Sweeney.

“Stay on those tracers,” Reed guided one child, while classmates pretended to play guitar along with a song.

In pre-kindergarten, Reed works to get students used to seeing words and letters. They focus on a “letter of the week” and a list of vocabulary words. They learn “snap words” like “a” and “the.”

Kindergarten will move fast. While pre-k focuses on a letter of the week, kindergarten does several each week, Reed said.

Julie Fabie, the district’s pre-kindergarten coordinator, said literacy is a big focus. The teachers work on introducing students to vocabulary they might not have heard otherwise, building up students’ “word bank” in preparation for kindergarten.

And while there’s a learning standard being met through every activity, Fabie said, students in pre-k are certainly getting time to play.

“It’s what’s developmentally appropriate,” she said.

Fabie told the school board that this year, the pre-kindergarten classes started a developmental screening questionnaire with students, to help identify any possible developmental delays. Then the classes work closely with the Lincoln Intermediate Unit for any interventions needed.

Pre-k can save on special education costs, said Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. Often a child might have an IEP — an individualized plan for a student with special needs — in pre-k that might be unnecessary by kindergarten or first grade.

“I think the issue is … sometimes those delays are very focused on language acquisition,” Benso said. “If that child is in a rich, literacy promoting pre-k program, those language acquisition skills … are all taken care of before that kids go to kindergarten.”

Benso’s organization is part of Pre-K for PA, a campaign pushing for all 3- and 4-year-olds to have access to high quality pre-kindergarten by 2018. The campaign cites a host of benefits from pre-k, pulled from various studies.

Early literacy skills are one of the most important outcomes of pre-k, she said, but it also gives students early numeracy and social skills. It can mean fewer disruptions in the classroom later, which is better for everyone to learn.

For children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, pre-k means they are more likely to enter kindergarten similarly prepared to a student from a more affluent background, she said.

Benso said it isn’t a silver bullet — the quality of education after pre-k matters, too. A child who has the opportunity to attend a high school with the latest technology in the science lab and advanced courses is likely to be better prepared for college than a child who doesn’t.

“That does’t mean pre-k failed, that means we failed on a K-12 side,” she said.

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