Monday, May 20, 2024

Evergreen School focuses on providing quality early education

Twelve years ago, the Evergreen School District was awarded a grant that enabled us to introduce an early learning program, now referred to as early kindergarten, for 4-year-olds within our community. 

The Evergreen School District board of trustees and administration recognized these benefits and continued the program for students with exceptional circumstances after the grant ended. As we know early childhood education can have a significant positive impact on a child’s development and readiness for kindergarten and beyond, providing quality early education helps to address social-emotional and academic needs as well as to reduce achievement gaps among students. 

During the 2023 legislative session, House Bill 352 passed, allowing school districts to provide early literacy targeted interventions beginning next school year, which will allow Evergreen to continue providing early learning opportunities for 4-year-olds who qualify and whose parents want them to participate. 

Laurie Barron, superintendent of the Evergreen School District, was recently appointed to the Montana Board of Public Education Early Literacy Advisory Council and the Montana Office of Public Instruction Early Literacy Collaborative, where she actively supports and champions the implementation and sustainability of these programs in our state’s public schools, including in our Evergreen community. As Barron notes, “This most recent legislation will allow our District to continue supporting early learners at risk of not demonstrating reading proficiency upon completion of third grade. By establishing parameters and funding for three different voluntary early literacy targeted intervention programs (a 4-year-old classroom-based program, a summer jumpstart program, and a home-based program), the Legislature is supporting Montana’s youngest learners.”

A typical day in our early kindergarten classroom begins with a story followed by a short social skills lesson and then breakfast. While the children eat, adults move around the room, facilitating friendly conversation, emphasizing table etiquette, and paying close attention to the day’s early cues. After breakfast and once the tables are cleared with the help of the children, we gather on the carpet for an engaging, math-focused whole-group instructional session, the first of many seemingly endless bathroom breaks, and our specials classes, which include library, computers, and music.

The remainder of our day comprises center-play, small group instruction, one-on-one instruction, and whole group targeted short-burst lessons as we transition between center rotations. Stepping into our classroom, you will encounter what I refer to as beautiful chaos. However, a closer look and attentive listening will reveal that it is not chaos at all but rather purposeful activity. The children engage in lively conversations, collaboration, and occasional disagreements, while the energetic movements around the room all serve a purpose. You will find adults providing targeted interventions while either seated at a table with a small group, providing one-on-one instruction, or actively participating in one of the learning centers, guiding and supporting play, social-emotional development, and educational activities. Purposeful and targeted intervention lays the groundwork for a strong foundation, guiding students toward achieving reading proficiency by the third grade.

Tamara Williams, chair of the Evergreen School District Board of Trustees, notes “As a trustee in the Evergreen School District, we periodically tour our classrooms, observing incredible work happening on a daily basis. Visiting the early kindergarten program provides a moment of pure joy and affirmation. The ‘constructive chaos’ occurring in this classroom is the foundation for our students’ overall development. This opportunity not only prepares them for formal education, but it is also the framework for their social, emotional, and cognitive development.”

Three-year-old students who receive special education services in our special education preschool also benefit from generalized opportunities to be with peers, which would not be possible without early kindergarten. 

Dawn Black, our special education preschool teacher, and I work closely together to provide opportunities for students in both our classrooms to interact with each other through play and storytime. 

Special Services Director Melissa Hardman notes, “These opportunities for our youngest learners help build not only academic knowledge but social skills critical for development as well.”  

Sherry Odegard, East Evergreen Elementary Principal adds, “Providing early access to learning focused on literacy with ample time to learn through social interactive play is critical to the development and success of our early learners. Our early kindergarten program truly prepares our early learners for significant success throughout their lives.”

Early childhood education plays a vital role in preparing young children for success in kindergarten and beyond. Rigorous standards-based academics are intentionally integrated into every learning center and throughout our daily schedule because, for children in this age group, play serves as their means of both learning and enjoyment. Engaging in play is a form of work, and work should ideally embody the spirit of play. I acknowledge that in a school environment with its associated demands and requirements, maintaining this philosophy requires a careful and artful approach. 

I genuinely believe that we are successfully achieving this balance. I frequently express that our early kindergarten classroom is the most joyful classroom in the school, though I may be somewhat biased.

    Amarah Allen and Ephraim Vinnichuk at the Evergreen School District early kindergarten classroom. (Courtesy photo)