By Matthew Tungate
Tracy Creech, special education director and preschool coordinator for the Wolfe County school district, can remember a time not so long ago when many incoming kindergarteners didn’t know their colors.
“We figured out that the parents in our community thought that kindergarten was still come in, take a nap and play when you come to school,” Creech said. “So we wanted to let them know that we learn to read in kindergarten, and they needed to come in knowing the alphabet. We were just trying to change our culture, change our thinking and get the word out that these are things they need to learn before they come to school.”
To do that, the district created a two-day Jump Start program five or six years ago that focused on informing parents what their children needed to know the first day of kindergarten, Creech said.
The program has helped the community realize that parents play a big role in preparing students for school, and Creech said more students arrive at school prepared for kindergarten.
Despite already seeing improvement in student readiness, Wolfe County is one of 108 districts that are voluntarily using a statewide readiness screener this fall. The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has contracted with Curriculum Associates to use the BRIGANCE Kindergarten Screen as the common kindergarten entry screener.
Until now, there has been no way for education officials, lawmakers and the public to get reliable, comparable data from across the state about how ready children are to start school. Approximately 53,000 students are enrolled in kindergarten in Kentucky’s public schools each year.
Creech said some parents may be encouraged to work with their children before school starts if they know their children are going to be screened.
“If the parents work with us and would try to get them ready for school, I think that our scores overall over the years are really going to improve, but it starts at home,” she said. “It starts before they come to school, and then we can take it and run from there.”
Katie Williams, school readiness consultant and lead implementer of the screener for the Kentucky Department of Education, said screener has multiple parts.
The basic screen has 11 items, asking children to tell the administrator their first, middle and last name, for instance. Children also may be asked to recognize letter and numbers, write their first name and jump on one foot, as examples, she said.
Students’ will receive a score from 0-100 in each of the five areas measured, Williams said.
“It’s a spectrum, so every child isn’t expected to perform at the top level,” she said.
Based on score ranges, children will be identified as ready with supports, ready, and ready with enrichments in each of the areas, Williams said. These readiness levels are what will be reported statewide.
Districts piloting the screener sent up to five people to one of nine train-the-trainer sessions over the summer. Those who were trained went back to their district to train others on how to administer the screener, she said.
After this year, Kentucky may able to replace the national norms the screener uses to measure students against with data gathered this year if there are enough students who take it, Williams said.
“We really want this to be Kentucky-specific,” she said.
Besides the basic screen, there also is a self-help social-emotional questionnaire, Williams said. That is a parent questionnaire that asks about personal qualities, such as whether a child uses eating utensils, brushes his or her teeth or can use the bathroom independently. Responses are yes or no, and it comes with a score as well, she said.
Williams said the screener includes an online management system where teachers can see individual student and class results. The online system also has readiness activities based on students’ needs in each of the areas, a section for teachers to document their observations, and sample forms for sharing information with parents and curriculum planning.
“We expect teachers to use this information to inform initial and individualized instruction for children at the beginning of the school year,” she said.
Teresa Short, a kindergarten teacher at West Broadway Elementary (Hopkins County), said her district has used the BRIGANCE screener before, but only for children who might need some sort of academic or emotional intervention.
Screening all incoming kindergarteners will help teachers plan their instruction more effectively, she said.
“I think it’s going to be very useful in guiding instruction to meet the needs of all students, whether that be remediation for some or challenging students who are advanced,” Short said. “This will allow us to differentiate our instruction. We’re going to use it to individualize each student’s education to meet their needs.”
Hopkins County curriculum consultants Ann Elkins (Pride Elementary School) and Melissa Parker (West Broadway), who trained the teachers in their district, including Short, said students are supposed to be screened no earlier than 15 days before school and no later than 30 days after school starts.
“I think this will provide the teachers with some much-needed data very early on in the year, which will in turn help their instruction be channeled directly to what those kids need,” Elkins said. “We want the teachers to see this as a tool, not just another assessment that we’re giving. We want them to see that there are some benefits and allow them to take the data to drive their instruction, as opposed to just sitting it on the shelf.”
Amy Wood, the kindergarten teacher at West Point Elementary, said the screener also provides her with important social-emotional information.
“This type of information is not as easy to come by and is usually discovered over time – something that is precious and not enough of,” Wood said. “This information helps me to know the child’s personality and level of independence even better. Every bit of information a kindergarten teacher can get about a student is going to be helpful in aiding the child.”
Elkins said having a screener will help teachers identify students who have special needs earlier.
“For the classroom teacher now, we’ll be able to provide them data, with the parents’ help, to get a better, clearer picture of children – their learning, their skills, where they are, where they need to go, their social development as of the day we screened – whereas in the past we would be the end of October or first of November before really getting a good idea of their social development and the areas they need increased teaching in,” she said.
Elkins said the online management system should be especially helpful for teachers.
“It’s going to provide a quick easy way to look at the data instead of having to pour through the paperwork,” she said. “The teachers are not going to have to try to figure out, when they look at the data, what the objectives need to be, what activities would fit – all that’s essentially going to be at their fingertips. That, in a teacher’s world these days, is wonderful.”