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Written by John Hakes

Never mind the education-leading nation of Finland’s forbearance of kindergarten until its youngsters reach age seven. In fall 2014, the Minnesota method will have many 5-year-old, public schoolchildren adding a brand-new descriptor to their developing student resumes: “all-day.”

By September, Minnesota Department of Education officials project 95 percent of incoming kindergarteners will receive all-day kindergarten (ADK) instruction. Three hundred and fifteen of 330 Minnesota school districts already offer ADK, but with the state’s vowing to fully fund it for the 2014-15 school year, soon even more kids will attend school morning ‘til afternoon.

Considering this shift, districts open to reassessing their kindergarten offerings might benefit from learning about an established program. Woodson Kindergarten Center in Austin–distinctive for its size, high-quality curriculum and designs for improving student performance— is one such model for helping educators navigate the upcoming transition.

Minnesota’s largest ADK
State data indicate Woodson to be Minnesota’s largest no-fee, ADK program. During the 2012-13 year, Woodson enrolled 344 kindergarteners, more than 100 students greater than the second-largest program.

(View a complete list of Minnesota’s district kindergarten programs.)

Curriculum nine years in the making
Since first opening its doors in 2005, the Woodson center has had plenty of time for growth and refinement.

“Kindergarten is the new first grade,” says Woodson Principal Jessica Cabeen regarding the center’s academic approach.

“Ten or 15 years ago, you could do more hands-on crafts … but with the rigor of what we want our kids to do when they go post-secondary, there’s a trickle down there,” says Cabeen, who cited the adoption of common K-4 literacy and math curricula as part of increasing academic expectations. “Especially because we are a center, all these kids are going to different schools in first grade, so we want to have a strong foundation [for students] in kindergarten.”

While staple instructional components of literacy and numeracy aren’t going away any time soon, the once institutionalized kindergarten nap time is no more. Traditional elements remain, with a twist:

  • Show-and-tell takes the form of oral language group time, where students use a real-life topic or picture as the focus of conversation.
  • Dress-up time involves students donning vocational garments of construction workers or medical professionals to become familiar with careers they might pursue.
  • Play center period supports creative thinking and hands-on problem-solving, as well as thematic units largely developed by Woodson teachers, all of whom have master’s degrees in science and literacy.

“We’ve worked hard to review science standards and what they should look like here at Woodson,” mentioned Cabeen.

Other curricular elements include:

  • iPads–At Woodson, each section of 22-24 students is allotted six iPads. Over the course of the day, students rotate in and out of the iPad stations at 15-minute intervals. Some math and literacy is instructor-led, some is done individually.The technology has been a boon for parent engagement: educators communicate the approved apps to families, even assisting them with downloads on home devices during fall information night.
  • SMART–Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training–provides students opportunities for developing gross and fine motor skills that improve their abilities to sit up straight, form class lines and concentrate on learning.“SMART is an approach where our teachers are trained to do monthly run-throughs on monkey bars, crossing over midline right-left activities, and doing stabilization exercises to decrease the hyperactivity some of our kiddos have,” Cabeen explained.

Autistic classroom
Cabeen sees Woodson’s recent addition of a classroom that serves autistic students as a capstone program. With a school population swelling above 400 this year, Woodson’s autistic students would be challenged to learn in their environment without it.

“This new classroom has benefitted diagnosed students who come into an ADK program with so many kids, changes and transitions, and given them a safe space with sensory equipment, visual schedules and private restroom,” said Cabeen.

Designs for improving academic performance

  • 45/15 calendar–To accommodate students who plan to attend Sumner Elementary School in first grade, Woodson offers families the option of a 45/15 calendar. This “daily turn” begins one month ahead of the agrarian calendar, intersperses a trio of three-week breaks during the year and releases kids in early June with the traditional students, using the exact same number of contact days.Sumner Principal Sheila Berger explains: “During NCLB, our school talked about radical changes to increase test scores with no new money, and year-round school is what we got excited about.” Woodson staff gained an exploratory green light from its school board, hosted three public information nights to gauge interest, and completed the application process to install the calendar less than a year after the idea was introduced.

    According to Cabeen, the 45/15 works well with many families and instructors: “Anecdotally, I’m hearing from families of different cultures the modified calendar is more traditional to them than it is for the mainstream.” Cabeen said Woodson fluctuates from 2 to 3 sections per year, and she has a list of 5 to 6 teachers who want to be considered for them.

  • Section composition–A critical question for districts that establish district-wide kindergarten centers is how to group students who will move on to different schools in first grade. Is it useful to section students according to the school they will attend in the following year?Woodson does not, opting instead for a data-driven approach in which every student completes a kindergarten assessment when they start the school year. Once complete, principal, teacher, instructional coach and student data operator match students who can learn from each other for the year. Educators then follow students’ performance closely through spring and then share that information with their respective elementary schools.

    Because of the careful monitoring and more continuous calendar, Sumner spends less time reviewing concepts at the beginning of the year, Berger reported. “We don’t go through more curriculum, but our kids do better,” she said of incoming first graders.

  • Tiered interventions–When adopting common literacy and math curricula shared across all Austin elementary schools, Woodson educators also looked deeper at its “tiered intervention practices.” Core teams meet monthly to review at-risk students, some of whom are monitored every two weeks. Cabeen works closely with principals of area elementary schools in the hopes that data sharing will close the achievement gap for Woodson graduates.

Icing for the ADK cake
Kindergarten centers allow for additional, life-enriching possibilities. One such offering at Woodson is the “snack cart,” an inexpensive plan where students can take an extra trip to the school cafeteria each day to try healthy items they might not otherwise go for at home.

The potentially unnerving kindergarten bus ride has a couple of nice features as well–each is staffed with a driver and a paraprofessional. Beyond the color-coded bus pass, the fleet itself is decked out with red, blue, orange and green buses.

Cabeen offers a final piece of advice to educators and families who are gearing up for ADK:

“I really feel that communication is key in working with the local preschools to make sure you’re capturing all the families,” says Cabeen, who evidently knows of what she speaks, since her school’s population increased from 344 to 420 students in the last year. “I’ve been amazed by what initiatives people have driven forward in this community. It’s not just the idea of the principal. You really need the support of the staff, the community and the school board to move these things forward.”

John Hakes is a School Reform Blogging Fellow.

Sources for this article include data and written responses supplied by Minnesota Department of Education Governmental Relations Director Daron Korte, as well as interviews with Woodson Kindergarten Center Principal Jessica Cabeen and Sumner Elementary School Principal Sheila Berger.


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