EdNC, February 6, 2019, by Liz Bell
When children come to the first day of kindergarten, they come with a variety of needs, personalities, abilities, and backgrounds. The most important thing in those first few weeks is building a routine, said Annette Kent, a kindergarten teacher at Coker-Wimberly Elementary School in Edgecombe County.
“Routines are very important in kindergarten and building that stamina that they need when we start the reading process,” Kent said. “I really need them to be focusing and being on task the entire time and not losing any of their instructional time. So we’re trying to drill that importance of just being able to stay on that one task and keep that one task.”
The routine leads to more time to dive into academics.
“Kids now are expected to be able to read, write, answer comprehension questions, [in] their mathematics, they’re solving problems. I think people still think kindergarten is just counting, and it’s not,” said Coker-Wimberly Principal Katelin Row. “They’re doing addition, they’re doing subtraction, they’re doing almost everything. They’re doing foundations in geometry and working with 3-D shapes. Six year olds are doing 3-D shapes right now, and that’s not what kindergarten was 20 years ago, 30 years ago.”
Row is a graduate of N.C. State University’s Northeast Leadership Academy, a highly-respected accelerated principal preparation program. Row is one of a handful of young leaders from the program within Edgecombe County Public Schools. She is constantly focused on “what’s best for kids,” even if that means doing things differently or challenging the status quo. Row explained her student-focused discipline approach. She said she often asks teachers during referrals: “Do you want the child punished or do you want the issue resolved?” She works to emphasize healing relationships and understanding where students are coming from.
Back in August, Coker-Wimberly students came to class a couple weeks before the normal start of the year because of flexibility they have been granted from the state. The elementary school, which serves about 280 students, has been designated a “restart school,” which means the school’s administration has more control over scheduling, staffing, and structuring the school experience. Schools must be low-performing for two of the last three years to receive the restart status. Low-performing means the school received a D or F in the state’s school grading system and met or did not exceed the state’s growth standards.
During the 2017-18 school year, Coker-Wimberly received an F. Those grades are comprised of 80 percent performance on end-of-grade tests and 20 percent student growth. One of the biggest complaints with this grading scale is that students come to school at different starting points depending on a number of socioeconomic factors. In 2017-18, over 76 percent of students at Coker-Wimberly were living in poverty.
For kindergarteners, starting points depend heavily on if the child had any prior educational experience, like daycare or pre-K. At the start of this school year, Coker-Wimberly kindergarten teacher Taylor McNab said she can immediately tell whether or not students were in a high-quality program beforehand.
“We had one little boy yesterday who we asked him to write his name and it was just like scribbles,” McNab said. “The ones who go to pre-K, they know how to walk in a line, they know how to write their name, they can recognize most letters and most numbers, but still not all. And then, the ones who don’t go to pre-K come in really knowing nothing.”
McNab said she hopes for a system where every student can get an earlier start to be on the same page when entering kindergarten. Without that, she said it is a large challenge to meet end-of-year standards for some students.
“That’s how I wish it was because some of the kids that come in, like there’s no way — well there is a way — you work your butt off to get them where they need to be, but sometimes it still doesn’t get them where they need to be,” she said. “You spend all year working with them in small groups, flash cards, sending stuff home, and then at the end of the year, they still can’t read on their level.”
The school’s restart status has allowed for some changes in the way the staff is structured. Coker-Wimberly is in its second year of implementing a program called opportunity culture, which creates roles for highly-effective teachers that pay more and allow them to reach more students. In the kindergarten classes at Coker-Wimberly, there are subject-specific multi-classroom leaders (MCLs) who come into the classroom, coach teachers, and help give more individualized instruction to students.