When the kindergartners at Windsor Manor Elementary School first entered their classrooms this year, many didn't know their letters, let alone how to spell their names.
Motor skills were low, and many students didn't have the foundations for writing skills such as rhyming.
"They were literally at the scribbling stage," said teacher Amy Smeltzer.
The 80 students who scored the lowest on their kindergarten readiness assessments across the Red Lion Area School District are part of a new approach the district took this year to help the students who struggle the most at an early age. It's the same curriculum and expectations, but the goal is to work more intensely with the students through first grade at Windsor Manor to get them on grade level for reading and math skills.
Program goals: The five full-day kindergarten classes of about 15 students each are all housed at Windsor Manor, a change from previous years when they were scattered across the district.
Next year, Windsor Manor's remaining classrooms will be used as first-grade classrooms for the current kindergartners, while another 80 full-day kindergartners come to Windsor Manor. Half-day kindergarten classes are still in other elementary schools across the district.
The concentrated full-day kindergarten classes allow teachers to collaborate and share resources and tips for their students. Plus, this year they're equipped with an arsenal of new technology, classroom assistants and new learning programs to give students the boost they need.
The work has meant a lot of changes for the kindergarten teachers, who adjusted to new technology and new ways of tracking student progress.
"We are analyzing data during lunch," said teacher Jennifer Hodgkinson.
But the teachers said it's also an invigorating year as they start to see students catch up to their peers.
"This has been the best year of my career," Smeltzer said.
Growth: During assessments in March, 90 percent of the at-risk students were performing at grade level.
Many students were able to identify an average of 54 words in March, with the goal at an average of 60 words by the end of the school year. Knowing those words has meant students are now writing five-sentence stories, a huge improvement from learning the alphabet in September.
A large part of that progress, teachers said, was having the extended time to work on basic skills, sometimes bolstered with technology including games and apps on the five iPads each teacher received for each classroom this year.
Students are writing daily, something that's not always an option because of shortened time in half-day kindergarten settings. And a large focus is placed on pairing skills with songs and motions, which can help students with all learning styles remember how to spell high-frequency words such as "the" and "when."
"They'll break out into song as they're writing," said Lynne McDaniels, reading specialist at the school.
The iPads and SMARTboards — digital screens that can be used for projecting websites or student work — were overwhelming to incorporate into lessons at the beginning of the year, teachers said. But now using them is becoming second-nature: For example, the morning calendar time includes an online forecast, pulled straight from Google, and teachers can project songs and videos with the touch of a button.
Other techniques: The school day starts with active stations where students jump, skip and practice motor skills to jump-start their time in the classroom.
And on top of individualized writing time, each classroom has a designated time when assistants come into the classroom to help students on their work.
Many of those programs and learning techniques will go with the kindergartners as they move to first grade next year, still in Windsor Manor. The teachers said they see a self-confidence in their students this year that's often missing with high-risk students.
"They know they can do it," Hodgkinson said.
— Reach Nikelle Snader at firstname.lastname@example.org.