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00000181-fa79-da89-a38d-fb7f2ab60000In this five-part series, KUOW reporter Ann Dornfeld examines the way that low-income children entering kindergarten are often behind from the beginning. Edited by Carol Smith and produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.

When A Kindergartener Can't Recognize Her Own Name

Courtesy of Highline Public Schools
Teacher Natalie Alonzo welcomes kindergarten students to the first day of the Jump Start program at Hazel Valley Elementary School in Burien.

In a modern kindergarten class, you rarely see one lesson underway at once.

At Bow Lake Elementary in SeaTac, these new kindergarteners are studying reading – and social skills – and how to work as a group.

At the front of the classroom, teacher Chelsea Tuman addresses her tiny students slowly, in a sing-song voice: “I’m gonna call on somebody from the green table. Hmmm.”

Tuman says from being able to read about friendship, to actually making friends, her 25 students start the year at dramatically different skill levels.

Some came from preschools or other environments with a lot of educational opportunities. Those who didn’t can seem confused by the most basic interactions.

“Like when I ask them a simple question like ‘Hi, how are you?’ That’s a question that they’re not able to answer,” she says.

In Washington state public schools, only one out of three low-income students arrives at kindergarten with all the necessary skills. Studies show that can put kids in catch-up mode for the rest of their school careers.

“This year I have students who have come in and are reading on a third-grade level,” Tuman says, “and I have students who didn’t recognize their name on the first day of school.”

Those differences make it hard to get the class on the same page, Tuman says.

She says it takes a few weeks of school just to get all of her kindergarteners ready to learn kindergarten-level material.

And time is critical.

“By the end of the year they need to be at benchmark,” she says. “They need to be readers, they need to be writers, and they need to have really good number sense and be able to add and subtract fluently."

When the kids start out at different levels, it’s tough to get them to that standard.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "85160", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201410/PoorStart-Character2.gif", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]In the past couple years, Highline School District and other high-poverty districts around the state have been trying out a new strategy to make the transition to kindergarten easier for students, their parents and teachers.

At Highline, the program is called Jump Start.

It lets incoming kindergarteners do a practice week of school before the school year officially begins.

On day one at Hazel Valley Elementary in Burien, Aide Ligaya Palma leads a group of wide-eyed, incoming kindergarteners on a tour of their new school – starting with the bathroom.

“First we’re gonna stop in here!” Palma says. “This is our …”

A flushing toilet interrupts her.

“Oops, did you hear that?” she says. “Let’s move forward here. Don’t forget to flush the toilet after you use it!”

The Jump Start program is voluntary, meant to familiarize children with their school routines so they can hit the ground running on the first day of school.

And it lets teachers get to academics faster while giving them a preview of their new students’ skills.

Teacher: “If you want to borrow this, guys, and get some shapes, you can say, ‘Can I please have the shape box?’”

Student: “Can I please have the shape box?”

This kind of head start helps teachers figure out which students need extra services, like speech therapy, so it can start as soon as school begins.

At the end of the week, grandfather Russ Bishop joins other parents and caregivers on the playground to pick up their newly-minted kindergarteners.

Bishop says his grandson Bruce has given Jump Start a good review.

“He’s enthusiastic about being here,” Bishop says of Bruce. “Coloring, drawing is a big thing.”

Bruce bounds up to his grandfather. “I’ve got something to show you!”

Bruce waves a nameplate that he decorated in class.

Another Jump Start highlight for him was soccer.

And Thursday’s science lesson.

“There was a tank of water and we tested out what would sink or float,” he says breathlessly. “And I did the square thing, I think it’s called the dice, and it kind of floats. ’Cause you have to put it, like, slowly, gentle down.”

Tuman says Jump Start has dramatically improved the beginning of the school year for her students.

“In terms of better preparing our students, Jump Start is amazing,” she says. “And then better preparing our families, it’s hugely beneficial. And better preparing the teachers. We feel really ready for who we have coming in.”

Anne Arnold echoes this praise for the program.

Arnold heads the Early Learning department at Highline Public Schools.

But Arnold says these kinds of programs can only do so much.

“We don’t pretend for a minute that a one-week Jump Start program is going to make up for five years in disparity in experiences,” she says.

“But we do know that everything we can do to give our students a common experience and rich experiences is going to help bridge that gap and help them arrive more ready to learn.”

The hope at Highline and other districts is that programs like Jump Start will mean that a child’s early learning experiences won’t determine their fate in kindergarten.

Or their long-term academic success.

Year started with KUOW: 2008