Gallatin County begins college, career readiness at kindergarten

First-grade teacher Amanda New reviews high frequency words with Miguel Rodriguez at Gallatin County Lower Elementary School. Gallatin County teachers begin working with students on goal setting and college and career readiness as soon as elementary school.
First-grade teacher Amanda New reviews high frequency words with Miguel Rodriguez at Gallatin County Lower Elementary School. Gallatin County teachers begin working with students on goal setting and college and career readiness as soon as elementary school.
Photo by Amy Wallot, March 11, 2013

By Matthew Tungate

Students at Gallatin County Lower Elementary School may only be in kindergarten through 2nd grade, but they already know the importance of meeting goals.

“We’re constantly focused on the kids setting goals and then rewarding them for meeting those goals. It has done a lot for increasing achievement, but more than that, it has done a lot for increasing motivation,” reading coach Pam Scudder said last month during a beach party for students who met their Scholastic Reading Counts goals.

Students who reach their goals in mathematics get to parade around the school led by the local fire department, she said.

“You can stop any kid in the hallway and say, ‘Did you meet your goal?’ And they’ll say yes or no and then they’ll tell you exactly how many more points they need to get to their goal,” Scudder said. “Just to hear a 1st grader tell you they should have set their goal higher because they met it two weeks early is unbelievable.”

Having students set and track their own goals is just the beginning of a process that staff at the school hope will lead to setting even broader goals – like going to college.

It is the way that the Gallatin County school district extends its college- and career-readiness efforts all the way to the lower elementary school that stuck out to Kate Akers and Jenny Todd on a recent visit. Akers and Todd, research analysts with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), are studying high schools like Gallatin County that exceeded their college- and career-readiness targets the last two years.

In February 2011, KDE secured the Commonwealth Commitment from all districts – a pledge that, between 2010 and 2015, they will increase by 50 percent the number of their graduates who are college- and/or career-ready.

Akers and Todd wanted to know how some districts exceeded their annual targets toward that goal, so they went to Gallatin County last fall and interviewed district and school-level administrators, and teachers from every school. They came away impressed with many ways the district is getting students college- and career-ready, including how it celebrates student success on tests such as EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT; adjusts schedules to meet student needs; aligns instruction horizontally and vertically; and grows teachers to be experts.

But what made Gallatin County stand out from other districts they visited is how staff in the northern Kentucky district begin talking about college/career-readiness at the elementary school.

“They’re trying to train the students to aspire,” Todd said.

That starts with goals, which all kindergartners try to reach every nine weeks, said kindergarten teacher Myra Morgan.

“Knowing that you have a goal gives you something that you have to work at, something to reach,” she said. “Then we tie that back in with things that are going on around us.”

For instance, last year the school hosted a March Madness-themed mathematics and literacy night, Scudder said. Each classroom took a school from the NCAA tournament to study. The students became so engaged that the elementary school’s media specialist contacted each college or university, which returned packets including T-shirts, stickers and pictures of the basketball team, she said.

Students wanted to know more about the colleges and universities, so they began studying their locations and mascots and why students went there, Scudder said. They even took virtual tours of some of the schools.

Elementary teachers also had members of the high school basketball teams come in uniform to read to every child and allowed the children to ask the players about their future plans, Scudder said.

“It was an inroad to talking about colleges where they could actually think, ‘Yes, I would like to go to college,’” she said. “Just whatever comes up that we can possibly do to raise awareness about the expectation that we are going to college and we are going to be successful either in a career or a college situation.”

Lower Elementary School Principal Joe Wright said setting goals helps students as young as kindergarten prepare to be independent learners.

“Instead of the teacher being the sage on the stage, we try to work ourselves into being the guide at the side,” he said.

That’s more challenging at the K-2 level than it is for older children, he said. But teachers use standards-based grading and students know what skills they must master to move up a level. Just as with letting students set their goals for rewards in math and reading, showing students the skills they must master removes the teacher as the person who “gives” students a grade.

“If we’ve done our job correctly, that will go away,” Wright said. “They’ll know that they are part of the process and nobody gave you anything. We worked together for you to get what you got.”

Wright said the school also emphasizes careers. Kindergarten students participated in a career day that featured utility employees, paramedics and members of the sheriff’s department. In a county where many adults didn’t even graduate high school, even the teachers and school administrators are unusual for having a college degree.

Parents have to trust that school is preparing their children for a different world than the one in which they grew up, Wright said.

“We’re talking about a culture shift,” he said.

Wright said that’s a little easier given that 50-60 percent of teachers and administrators – including himself, the superintendent, and principals at the intermediate elementary and high school – all graduated from Gallatin County High School.

“We are building a launching pad for our students to take off to bright new futures,” he said.

It’s also work that can’t start early enough, Scudder said.

“At Gallatin County Lower Elementary we believe it is never too early to start talking about the importance of planning for college and careers after high school. This belief includes reaching out to our students, families and community by educating them about what is required for success in the 21st century, and that we expect and have confidence that each one of our students can be a successful member of society,” she said. “This may be a mindset change for some, and it will be too late to start talking about that when they get to middle school and high school.”

College/Career-Readiness Delivery Plan
Joe Wright,, (859) 567-6342
Kate Akers,, (502) 564-4201
Jenny Todd,, (502) 564-4201