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More class time helps at-risk kids

July 11, 2003

By William L. Bainbridge

One can hardly pick up a newspaper, turn on television, review a magazine, view a Web portal or attend a social function without learning about the perceptions of failure in our public schools and the many suggestions of reform by instant experts. The research, however, on school improvement is clear: Children need additional time and resources to enhance the learning process.

Research has demonstrated that time, in the form of an extended school year or day, can make a difference. Likewise, resources covering a wide range of educational assets, including parents reading to their children, more and better qualified teachers, computers in the home, exposure to classical music and stimulating learning exercises of many types have proved effective in increasing students’ learning, as measured by scores on standardized tests.

Most reform advocates focus on the resource component either by advocating better teacher training, parent involvement, vouchers, charter schools, high staff salaries, accountability measures, technological advances and program improvements.

Recently, the Philadelphia school system was in the national spotlight for focusing on the time component. Superintendent Paul G. Vallas, who made his mark in Chicago, has enrolled more than 30,000 students in the largest summer school in the City of Brotherly Love’s history. Test scores in that urban center, like others, are in the ditch, and Vallas is attempting to turn around the 200,000-student system by offering children additional support.

One need not focus on urban centers to see the impact that additional time has on increasing learning, especially for young children. A recent meeting with Whitehall school Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy and her chief academic officer, Susie J. Carr, yielded data to validate what researchers have been reporting.

Shortly after Dobbert-Meloy’s arrival on the scene, the Whitehall Board of Education approved a limited all-day kindergarten program. Although there were some problems associated with concerns for budget, staffing and space, the district moved forward.

In the fall of 2000, an appointed study team led by Carr collected data and assembled research to convince the board and public that all-day kindergarten could make a difference. They were also charged with developing a program model.

The team’s interpretation of the research indicated that simply stretching the current kindergarten program out over a full day for all students might not make the positive differences they hoped to achieve. They did believe, after careful study, the research supported all-day programs for children who were identified as "at risk" of educational failure.

Whitehall’s population includes many students from families low on the socioeconomic ladder. District test scores revealed that 25 percent of the students were consistently not at grade level in terms of reading skills at the end of second grade. The answer was to develop a program of early intervention with the lowest performing students to see if a boost in literacy could be achieved.

Whitehall’s model identifies students coming into kindergarten who are lagging in literacy-skill development and provides them with intensive intervention. The new model also includes more parent involvement and weekly reports helping parents and teachers understand each child’s progress. Parents, who provide the school with anecdotal data about the program’s effectiveness, are also given the opportunity to participate in hands-on instruction on the use of magnetic letters, small books and writing strategies.

The good news is, Whitehall was not only right, but the district pulled it off by realigning federally funded Title I personnel and literacy coordinators without spending additional money. SchoolMatch Chief Information Officer Kathy B. Bleimes, a Whitehall alumnus, said the data "was incredible," and Bleimes, having examined school achievement data for more than 15,000 school systems since 1985, is not easily impressed.

The Kindergarten Intervention Program in Whitehall not only closed the gap for atrisk students, it eliminated the gap altogether based on two years’ data. Enrollees in the program have demonstrated great gains in letter identification, hearing sounds in words and concepts about print, all key factors in the reading-readiness process. When asked, "Has the KIP program met the needs of your child?" 71 percent of parents said it was very helpful and 23 percent said it was mostly helpful.

Parents say their children have made major improvements in letter recognition, reading and writing. Perhaps more important, they indicate children are excited to read, more interested in reading, like reading more, have more self-confidence and enjoy school more as a result of the program.

Kudos to Whitehall City Schools for implementing a research-based initiative to improve schools and help make the learning process meaningful.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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