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More K Time: Early Literacy Goal Calls For Some To Have Longer School Year

Vanessa de la Torre

March 04, 2012

Maria Nelson sat on the alphabet rug to meet the kindergartner at eye level.

A hodgepodge of words was displayed before them: "the went in The fox hat."

Children in the classroom had six index cards, each with a word they needed to arrange in a sentence. After clues from Nelson -- shouldn't the capital T belong at the start? -- the girl corrected herself to get the right sequence: The fox went in the hat.

Literacy specialists and kindergartners inside Betances Early Reading Lab School worked until the 2:45 p.m. dismissal on a recent Friday afternoon. Students at the neighborhood school on Charter Oak Avenue began the day at 7:45 a.m. No naps.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto believes they need even more time.

Starting this summer, Kishimoto wants all children entering kindergarten at the city's lowest-performing schools to have an 11-month school year. That means the tearful first day of class would be July 30.

The kindergartners would remain in school through Aug. 17, and then return for the districtwide 2012-13 opening day on Aug. 28, according to plans recently outlined to the city school board.

The state Department of Education is not aware of other Connecticut school systems that have taken this approach with kindergarten, department spokesman Mark Linabury said.

Another new initiative will add an extra two weeks of school beginning this June for current kindergartners at Betances, Milner Core Knowledge Academy and the Latino Studies Academy at Burns School who are not yet proficient in reading.

The June half-day program will be separate from the Early Start summer school for low-performing elementary students that is scheduled to run from July 9 to Aug. 10. Early Start had an average attendance last year of 3,786 students, including 267 kindergartners.

School officials readily acknowledge that kindergarten skipped past Play-Doh long ago and has barreled into first-grade territory.

"Play? No. No, no, no," Betances Principal Immacula Didier said. "This is no longer the case. Even in pre-K, for us, it's no longer the case."

The national Common Core State Standards that Connecticut adopted in 2010 raise the expectations of what public school students should know. This year's kindergartners, when they are third-graders, will be among the first children to take a new assessment exam in 2014-15 that will replace the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test.

But the biggest impetus for extended kindergarten is Kishimoto's Third Grade Promise, which she has made central to the city's education reform.

Throughout her first year as superintendent, Kishimoto has repeated the pledge to business leaders and parents -- that today's nearly 1,800 kindergartners will read at grade level by the time they complete third grade.

Most of Nelson's students entered the school year unable to recognize a single alphabet letter, said Didier, who considers them at least hundreds of learning hours behind suburban peers whose parents may have read to them over their cribs.

"We've put that promise out there," said Beryl Bailey, the school system's director of elementary literacy. "We can't wait till third grade."

Many Hartford students face extreme poverty in their neighborhoods. Many come from homes in which parents do not speak English.

If there is one factor educators can attempt to control, Bailey said, it "is the time we have them in front of us. So let's increase that time."


Just a decade ago, the school system suggested cutting all-day kindergarten to save a few million dollars.

Last year, after just slightly more than half of Hartford third-graders tested proficient in reading on the mastery test -- far below the state average -- administrators began to probe data more deeply to pinpoint when failure begins.

Education studies have established that early literacy is critical to a child's long-term success. Hartford's own experience indicated that not intervening in kindergarten creates a ripple of trouble that can eventually lead to delinquency and incarceration: "All the things we want to make sure don't happen to our kids," said Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, assistant superintendent of pre-K to 12 education.

About 61 percent of current kindergartners attended a preschool, according to the schools. A team of city teachers, literacy coaches and administrators that revamped the kindergarten curriculum recommended extra schooling to "even the playing field," Roberge-Wentzell said.

The group modeled the lengthier year after national examples, such as Maryland's Montgomery County, and some in Hartford: Annie Fisher STEM and Capital Prep are two magnet schools that started kindergarten early this school year.

At Annie Fisher, Principal Melony Brady said about 25 out of 40 kindergartners attended the two-week session last July that introduced reading, science and basic math skills, and an orientation of the school. By the time all students arrived in late August, she said, the young ones had their routine. Classes are from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

"We wanted our kindergartners to be learners on the first day of school," said Brady, who plans to mandate summer attendance for the new incoming class. "The stakes are high with the Third Grade Promise."

Kishimoto views the extended kindergarten as a permanent approach for Hartford that eventually could expand. The first struggling schools to try the longer year will be Milner, Burns and Betances, she said, with the possibility of M.D. Fox, America's Choice at SAND and Moylan School.

At Milner, a high-poverty school in the city's North End, a January assessment showed that only 12 percent of kindergartners were proficient in reading for their grade level -- a crisis for the district. In the Frog Hollow neighborhood, kindergartners at Burns tested at 34 percent proficiency, similar to Betances.

Milner and Burns would be part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed $24.8 million "Commissioner's Network" to turn around the state's lowest-achieving schools.

The kindergarten initiative is still in the development stage. School budgets are being formed for the 2012-13 year and administrators are contemplating how to staff the first month when teachers are usually on vacation. At the selected schools, Kishimoto is considering having all kindergarten teachers sign an 11-month contract.

Nelson, a Betances master teacher with 30 years' experience, said she spends July and August with her husband and sons so "it would be very difficult for me to do 11 months."

"A lot of it is in draft form," Bailey said. "We have to be sensitive to teachers who have families. ... It's not all or nothing."

In the coming weeks, principals plan to hold meetings with parents to notify them about the change. The schools also intend to reach out to the Hartford Parent Organization Council to try to gauge reaction.

For Angelica Rivera, an early start date for her 41/2-year-old daughter, Sky Mendez, a preschooler who may attend Moylan, would "be fine with me."

"She needs help," Rivera said. "She's more into playing games than learning."

But Rosemary Maldonado, whose son, Joevanie Burgos, is a kindergartner at Betances, believes 10 months is plenty of time for schools to teach the curriculum.

"He's only 5, so for him to do all that -- I wouldn't want him to get frustrated," Maldonado said. "I'd want him to take a break."


Didier, the principal, is adamant that the Third Grade Promise is within reach. Toward that goal, the school system has turned Betances into a research base.

The school is limited to pre-K to Grade 3. All staff members have a specialty in reading and use the classrooms to test teaching strategies that are shared with educators around the city. Nelson's classroom, for example, is equipped with two video cameras.

There is a focus on small-group instruction and vocabulary. Teachers model fluency and how words blend together. A key part of kindergarten is getting children to understand the shades of meaning and how to decode words -- cat rhymes with bat.

On a recent afternoon, special education teacher Teresa Lopez-Lebron worked with two kindergartners on basic pronunciation and identifying letters by sound. "Sssss," she stressed. A boy put the picture of a sun in a brown paper bag labeled "S."

"Our philosophy is our kindergartners can read," Didier said. "It's not only for private schools."

Yet Didier was concerned whether parents would bring their children to the extra two weeks in June, or the early beginning in July and August, if there are absentee problems during the typical year.

Attendance on a wet, overcast day was dismal. Twelve of Nelson's kindergartners showed up; about 10 were absent. Elsewhere in the school, Didier said, some classes had a handful of children.

"I feel that children are learning wonderfully when they come to school," Nelson said. Administrators reported that 83 percent of her students are now proficient in reading after starting from zero. "I can get it done -- if they're here," she said.

Kishimoto said she's aware of absenteeism but "I'm not going to let that detract us from moving forward."

"I don't want my kids having interventions throughout their academic life," Kishimoto said. "I want them to get the extra help ... as early as possible."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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