By Madelynn Coldiron
This is not a contradiction: Pendleton County Schools maintained its full-day kindergarten by cutting the program’s teaching staff in half.
The cuts were made possible with innovative scheduling that allowed the district not only to hold onto its full-day kindergarten, but produce some other benefits as well.
“Sometimes when you’re forced to look at changes and make changes, you end up coming up with better ways to do things,” said Joe Buerkley, district executive director for student services.
Kentucky Board of Education member Brigitte Ramsey – a former Pendleton County school board member – said the innovation “provides a high-quality service for students that didn’t shift cost to families.
“I think more and more districts are going to have to look at innovative and lower-cost models or more cost-efficient models as we continue to experience difficult budgets.”
PHOTO: Southern Elementary kindergarten teacher Alicia Reed gets enthusiastic responses as she peppers her class with questions during a reading lesson.
The new scheduling arrangement reduced certified teaching positions from eight to four and increased instructional assistants from eight to 12. It will save the district $120,000 to $150,000 in this first year of implementation.
The district had lost 400 students in the past four-five years but had not made corresponding staff adjustments, Superintendent R. Anthony Strong said. Under his direction, administrative staff last year began to brainstorm ways to, as he put it, “maximize resources without affecting the quality of instruction.”
Full-day kindergarten came under scrutiny since the state picks up only half the tab. Charging tuition was out of the question in a district with a free- and reduced-lunch rate of 67 percent.
“So we looked at how the instructional day was used,” Strong said.
The result is best explained by the chart on the opposite page. The schedule was implemented in both the district’s elementary schools, each of which now has two kindergarten teachers instead of four. Instead of the teachers having the same group of children all day, each teacher has two groups for instruction, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
“We worked out a way that the students were not missing anything as far as any core education or any type of special services, intervention services,” said Northern Elementary Principal Darell Pugh.
The extended-day sessions that occupy much of the noninstructional blocks are presided over by instructional assistants. One assistant is stationed all day in the same extended-day classroom, while each group also has an assistant that remains with its students all day as they moves through the schedule. The additional instructional assistants were hired to boost numbers for the extended-day session. Certified teachers are used for the rotating special sessions that each group of students gets – art, music, physical education and library, as they were in the old schedule.
The teachers and assistants collaborate as the kindergarten groups move between instructional and extended-day activities. This helps assistants tailor extended-day time to provide immediate help to those students who didn’t seem to grasp what was taught during the core instructional time. The block also is used for reinforcing concepts, enrichment and motor-skills development. Students with special needs are pulled out for help during this time.
Internal and external hurdles
One key to the success of the rollout of Kindergarten Academy was the planning the administrative team did in advance, including addressing potential obstacles and providing additional training for kindergarten staff, said assistant superintendent Amy Razor.
Internally, the main obstacle was staff mindset, since full-day kindergarten had the same traditional format for the 20 years it had existed, said Buerkley, who was Southern Elementary’s principal before moving to the central office this year.
“We had it laid out before we brought it before the teachers,” he said.
While the first week was a bit chaotic, “It’s clockwork now,” said kindergarten teacher Dana Childers. “The kids are really excited about it.”
The team also had to combat parental perception that students would get what amounted to a glorified half-day kindergarten.
The communication plan for parents worked, Strong said, adding, “We have had no complaints at all.”
Pugh said each school set up parent meetings to explain “what we’re trying to do and why we’re doing it.” They handed out brochures with “frequently asked questions” and sample schedules to show parents that students would still get the same services.
The program was deliberately renamed Kindergarten Academy to emphasize this concept.
Another key to the programs is careful selection of staff, said Southern Elementary principal Laura Pugh (cousin by marriage to her counterpart at the other school). Pugh, who calls her Kindergarten Academy staff “the dream team,” said teachers and instructional assistants must be both flexible and experienced.
The uninterrupted blocks of purely core instruction have been a plus, the administrators said. Darell Pugh said parents appreciate that children who have special needs don’t miss academic time, because they are pulled out during the extended-day block.
“With the setup that we have, when students go to the teachers for the core academics, that’s basically sacred time that no student is going to be pulled out for a special service or interventions,” he said.
The Pendleton County administrative team believes it is blazing a new trail in Kentucky with its Kindergarten Academy. Razor said when they began discussing the scheduling idea, they could find no models. “We realized it was a gold mine,” she said.