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They're not kidding around

The first day of kindergarten can be a frightening experience for any parent, and Casey Ray admitted that she was no exception when classes started this fall.

But the local mom and teacher's aide had reservations that went beyond typical first-day jitters. Her son Jacob was one of 43 kids enrolled in a single kindergarten class at Sams Valley Elementary. What might have seemed like an extraordinarily large class was part of an experimental, extended-day program that divides the kids into teams led by a squad of teachers and assistants.

Then came the day, just last week, when Jacob proudly displayed his latest accomplishment ' writing his own name without assistance.

I couldn't believe it. It was really happening for him, said Ray, who noted that Jacob has developed a real love for school. For him (this class) has been really good. He's learning a lot. He's happy.

With a new set of goals from the Oregon Department of Education in place for kindergarten students, Jackson County school districts have launched a movement to align curriculum and, if possible, increase instructional time for the very youngest of their students.

The goal is to give kids a leg up on grade school and take a load off first-grade teachers struggling with some kids who don't have even a rudimentary introduction to learning ' right down to knowing how to hold a pencil or crayon.

Local educators say limited funding and record-breaking class sizes have made the process a challenge ' especially when the student body in question has an attention span that rarely exceeds five minutes.

It can be loud and chaotic and noisy at times. It's kind of like herding cats, joked Sams Valley kindergarten teacher Barbara Meredith, who noted that disaster can strike if kindergarten student is ignored for more than 10 seconds. It takes a lot of organization.

The ODE does not have a set of academic standards or standardized tests for kindergarten students, said Diana Allen, an early childhood development director for the state.

However, the state instructs school districts to follow foundational guidelines in subject areas such as English, art, math and language for kindergarteners, first- and second-graders. The goal is to ensure kids are learning the necessary skills to meet third-grade benchmarks the state does measure.

The foundations are designed to close the achievement gap, added Allen.

In the past, local school districts required kindergarten teachers to introduce letters and sounds to their young charges before children entered the first grade.

This year, several school districts now require their youngest students to achieve a mastery of letters and sounds by the time they graduate to the primary level.

Typically, in the past, kindergarten wasn't academic. It was more about socialization, said Julie York, a supervisor of special programs for Medford who spearheaded the school district's extended day program adopted at seven schools this year. That's changed. Now they want kindergartners to come out reading.

At Sams Valley Elementary, Principal Bonnie Sutton said it's possible to meet those state guidelines thanks to the newly adopted extended day program.

Developed by local staff, the pilot program is federally funded, providing the school with classroom aides, teachers and free lunches and breakfasts for low-income students.

Instead of two hours and 30 minutes of class time, kindergarten students at Sams Valley now receive more than five hours of instruction five days each week.

Inside Meredith's classroom, youngsters are divided into three teams and rotate to different stations and activities throughout the day. Everything ' from teams to desks to name tags ' are color-coded to keep both teachers and kids organized.

At one station, Meredith teaches a team social skills, reading, vocabulary, numbers and other academic concepts.

In the library, students receive one hour of reading and literary instruction as part of a reading immersion program using federal aides and teachers.

At the developmental station manned by a classroom aide and parent volunteers, youngsters take part in arts and crafts.

Projects and assignments at all three stations are connected, giving students what teachers call a double dose of learning. For example, Thursday's lesson involved students saying the cuh sound and spelling the letter c at one station, reading stories about cats at another and painting pictures of colorful kitties at the third.

This isn't cramming things down their throats. It's giving them an opportunity to learn, said Sutton. This is stepping way outside the box. ... We took a chance.

Meredith noted that the program allows her to spend more one-on-one time with her young charges.

There's a huge difference between 15 and 20 (students in a group). Once you have 20 kids, it's like it's all downhill, she said.

It's so sweet. I really can get up and walk around and look into each little pair of eyes with a group this size, Meredith added. It's the best of both worlds.

Howard Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kathleen Erikson has 22 students in her class and one classroom aide. She said that extended day program, adopted at seven Medford schools, takes some adjustment for her students.

It's a lot more for the kids to take in, and they really grow, said Erikson. We adjust to make sure they're not over-wrought. We have to watch and take care of them.

Kindergarten students at Howard ' a school where the majority of students live at or below the poverty line ' now receive five instructional hours per day rather than two or three. Medford's program is also made possible by federal funding based on the high population of low-income students.

Sometimes parenting practices are such that these kids don't have a reasonable bedtime, said York. There's no question it's exhausting for them and the teachers.

To cope with small attention spans and ensure that kindergarten students aren't being overworked, teachers and aides incorporate quiet periods for napping or resting for extended-day programs. In the afternoon, activities are varied and include play or arts and crafts to keep students interested.

They need that period for their brains to stop for a while because it's been a long day, said Julie Gould, a kindergarten classroom aide.

At White City Elementary School, Principal Jay Sparks said the Eagle Point School District's goal to create a smooth transition from kindergarten to grade school was dealt a devastating blow when the school's federally funded pre-school closed because of budget cuts.

Approximately one-third of White City's kindergarten students took part in the free preschool. Without preschool, many students enter kindergarten without ever holding a pencil or crayon. Some are unable to tell the difference between a circle and square, while others can't tell what separates a number and a letter.

Sparks said kindergarten class sizes at White City Elementary ' a school where 75 percent of students come from poor homes ' now average about 23 kids per class. The district doesn't have the money to pay for an extended-day program, but students do get breakfast and lunch at school, he added.

Like Central Point and Medford, Sparks said curriculum has been realigned to help ease the transition into first grade and beyond.

Everything is so much more integrated now, he said. It just makes a deeper connection with the kids.

Sparks said White City staff also works to instill a love of school with all students. The key to that plan is encouraging kids to attend classes every day. Last year the school had an overall attendance rate of 95.27 percent ' a very high figure for a school with such a high population of low-income students.

We find it just makes a huge difference and that all starts in kindergarten, Sparks said.

Educators say only time will tell just how successful the newly adopted pilot and extended-day programs really are.

York noted that the results should surface when kindergarten students enrolled in the programs are assessed by the state in third grade.

Those who reap the benefits will be the first- and second- and third-grade teachers, she said, adding that the program has benefits that often outweigh academic achievement. We know they're being fed and taken care of.

As long as the federal dollars are there, we're going to continue.

Sams Valley Elementary School kindergarten student and red team member Cheyene Gortler works on a paper frog art project. Her unusually large class of 43 students is broken up into teams managed by teachers and aides. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell