Early learners to get a leg-up for kindergarten

Bentley Romero, 6, works on counting basketballs as part of the kindergarten math lesson.

Children who need more time to develop school-aged skills will have the option of joining a junior kindergarten class at Flandreau Elementary next year.
The school board unanimously approved adding the program at its Feb. 10 meeting. Board president Tom Stenger was absent from the meeting.
Junior kindergarten is something the district started talking about last year.
“It’s kind of geared for the younger kids that start school. It’s not doing kindergarten two years in a row,” said Superintendent Rick Weber. Junior kindergarten students would work on some of the same concepts but not at the same pace as in kindergarten, he said.
The cutoff to start kindergarten is for students to be age 5 by Sept. 1. Parents have always had the option of having their child wait a year for kindergarten if they have summer birthdays or aren’t quite ready for school, and that option will continue with the possibility of those children joining junior kindergarten.
“Junior kindergarten will act as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten,” Weber said. The goal is to keep the junior kindergarten class with a smaller number of students, possibly about 14. Two kindergarten classes would have about 18 students, if the projected numbers are on target.
Parents would have a choice in whether they want to send their child to junior kindergarten, and teachers would offer information on how their child compares with peers their age.
Some younger students need more time to develop skills such as holding a pencil and counting to 20, while older kids may already be beginning readers who have mastered some of the kindergarten standards before entering school, district educators said.
The program is designed to build confidence, develop small and large motor skills, help with sitting and following directions, increase vocabulary, encourage social interaction and prepare for the academics of kindergarten.
Children that would be accepted for junior kindergarten would not be those already served by special education. A developmental delay is different than a child simply not being ready for kindergarten, said Marietta Gassman, a special education teacher.
Other than private pre-school, there isn’t an option for children in the community who need to wait a year for kindergarten. If a child attended Head Start, they would no longer be able to participate in that program because they reached kindergarten age, Gassman said.
Last fall, Jessica Jewett decided to wait a year before sending her son to kindergarten because he turned five in August on the first day of school. He would have been the very youngest student in his class. Instead, she opted to enroll him in junior kindergarten at Redeemer Lutheran Church, where he had attended preschool.
“There’s no regrets with holding him back,” she said.
Jewett has seen a big difference this year in not only the academic things he has learned, but in his coloring, his social skills and his self-confidence.
“He’s really learned a lot in the program. He loves it,” she said. She is glad the school has decided to add junior kindergarten. “I think it’s a great thing. It’s a good thing to have that option”
The district has space for the program for at least five years, Weber said. Junior kindergarten students would have the same schedule as the rest of the elementary, attending school all day, every day.
Two kindergarten teachers told board members that the junior kindergarten option likely would result in fewer retentions because students would be ready for the rigors of kindergarten.
“The standards are coming in tougher while our kids are coming in lower,” said kindergarten teacher Natasha Luchtenburg. The number of kids the teachers are suggesting repeat kindergarten is growing, as well.
The standards for kindergarten have the goal of students counting to 100 by the end of the year and reading small books.
“Our expectations are very high for those kids that have never had this experience before. Those students might just need that extra year,” said Sarah Kills-A-Hundred, kindergarten teacher with early childhood experience. “We’re already teaching these students. We feel like this gap is huge.”
Kindergarten no longer focuses on colors and shapes, for example, because those are skills children are expected to know when coming to school. There are students who may only be able to count to 25 by the end of the school year because they come to school with no exposure to numbers, but that would be a good starting point for kindergarten if they had gone to junior kindergarten, Kills-A-Hundred said.
Some children who have not had preschool or been in daycare have not been exposed to other kids and have to learn the routine of school, such as sitting and listening, standing in line, self-regulation and self-confidence, she said.
She estimates that one-third of the students in each kindergarten class would have benefited from junior kindergarten.
Weber said he anticipates 56 students in kindergarten next fall but will have a better idea of skill levels after the kindergarten screening is held. That screening is March 3-4, and parents can call the elementary office at 997-2780 for an appointment time.
School board members liked the program, with a couple wondering if it also should include an aide in the room to help the teacher.
“I understand the concept, and I really like it. I think it will be successful if implemented correctly,” said Tammy Lunday, board member. “It’s the foundation. It affects first grade, second grade, all the way up.”
In other school business,
•Board members had the first reading of a policy to change the wording of who can participate in the spring graduation ceremony.
The new policy states that a student has to be enrolled and attend classes in Flandreau by the last Friday in January, in order to participate in graduation ceremonies.
•The school board approved the hiring of one additional special education teacher and one paraprofessional, starting next year, because of the growing number of students with special needs.
In December 2018, the district had 99 students in special education programs, while this last year, it was 120, Weber said. Since December, five additional students have been added and eight others are being tested, which could bring the total to 133, he said.
The average caseload in special education is 15 students, he said.
The elementary has three special education teachers with 46 students and additional referrals to come from new kindergarten and preschool children. In addition, the school has students with high behavioral management needs, he said.
The middle school has 39 students and two teachers, while the high school has 27 students and one teacher who has 18 kids this year. She can’t manage 27 students next year, Weber said.
The new teacher will work with freshmen, sophomores and some eighth-grade students.
•The board approved elementary principal Josh Cleveland as a new junior high track coach and Mitch Miller as an assistant golf coach who will work with junior high athletes.

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