Oregon’s latest education reform effort is focused on making sure all seniors in the Class of 2025 graduate from high school. Those are today’s kindergartners.
But advocates say some of the most important steps the school system should take come before kindergarten.
Rob Manning visited a new preschool program viewed as a possible model for the state.
Ericka Guynes, the principal at Earl Boyles Elementary School, is watching more than a dozen, three- and four-year-olds come in off the playground.
“Here they come. You can see them. They’re like little ducklings coming in a row. They’re so sweet.”
Their little fingers cling to a guide string to keep them together. Guynes says it’s a far cry from the first day of school, three weeks ago.
“Lot of tears and transition, but they’re doing a great job.”
Earl Boyles Elementary School is in a poor section of East Portland. Three quarters of its students live in poverty.
It’s a minority district, where one quarter of the students speak languages other than English at home.
“And only 53 percent of our kids have had any type of formal daycare, pre-school educational setting prior to coming to school,” Guynes says.
Even if some kids are more prepared, Swati Adarkar with the Children’s Institute says a teacher has to focus on the kids with the least amount of school experience.
“Her time is still taken off task to catch kids up.”
The Children’s Institute as an organization is focused on overhauling early learning so that all kids are ready for kindergarten.
“Really, what we need to look at is a way to create a more flexible, seamless program, that’s public preschool.”
But before anyone is likely to invest millions of dollars in a public preschool, educators have to show it will work somewhere first.
Governor John Kitzhaber and his education chief, Rudy Crew, took a look at Earl Boyles’ plans back in June. Now, the preschool is up and running, in one classroom.
Megan Larsen teaches this 16-student preschool class with the help of two instructional assistants, a special education specialist, and today, a mom who’s come in to help her son.
The teachers lead some lessons, like this exercise where kids are matching lower-case and capital letters.
“So we’re going to try to match our colors and our big ‘B’ and our little ‘b’.”
Sometimes kids choose activities, like the play kitchen, or blocks.
“The dollhouses are new, so that’s kind of the favorite right now.”
As they play, Larsen and her colleagues jot notes on clipboards. They’re tracking 38 different developmental goals.
Having the preschool at Earl Boyles makes it easier for kindergarten and preschool teachers to work together and avoid remedial work later.
By the time these kids attend kindergarten, they’ll be expected to sit through reading lessons, like this one. But principal Ericka Guynes says the teacher can’t be too demanding.
“She’s very good about letting, allowing wiggles. They’re like a basket full of kittens – they just start crawling out of the basket.”
Educators say the ideal would be to have kids in full-day preschool. But that’s not what they’re doing at this point.
Swati Adarkar says parents and state legislators probably aren’t ready for a full-day commitment.
“We interviewed some parents who were more reluctant to have a full day. We know that it’s a stronger academic dosage to have a full day, but we also know the costs of starting there are probably not realistic.”
The pilot costs about $5600 for each half-day preschooler. That’s close to what the state spends on full-day public school students.
Earl Boyles doesn’t have the preschool facility it wants, either. There’s room to provide preschool to only a fraction of next year’s kindergartners. The goal is for all eligible kindergartners to attend preschool first.
Principal Ericka Guynes points to the solution: an empty field out the school’s back window.
“This field is where a new wing of the school is going to go, to expand all of these activities – so to have the preschool activities, from birth to four, a community center….”
Voters in the David Douglas district approved a construction bond providing $3.5 million for the new wing. The Children’s Institute is leading a campaign to raise $3.5 million more.
The district hopes preschoolers will be playing and learning in the new building in three years.
Read more of Rob Manning’s reports on education in his series, Learning with Less.