IDEA schools expanding pre-K program to close learning gaps

By Danya Perez-Hernandez 

As seen in The Monitor 

PHARR — Three months into the school year and without much instruction from the teacher other than a “Get ready” command, kindergartners at IDEA Pharr are reading full words and their first-grade elders are beginning to read books on their own.

“Next word, get ready,” a teacher says. “Rrraaat … rat,” kindergartners answer sounding out each letter first and then the full word.

The language leap that many of these kindergartners and first graders have experienced at IDEA is being attributed to a half-day pre-kindergarten program piloted at the Pharr campus in 2014.

“Getting them here a whole year before did so many great things for them,” said IDEA Pharr Principal Sonia Aguilar. “They have more phonemic awareness, their oral skills are so much better.”

Language was one of the main focuses for the school, considering many of their kindergartners would come speaking mainly Spanish, Aguilar explained, and now they are able to start them with what they call an Español to English program since pre-K.

It was precisely this need for a stronger foundation that led to the creation of the pre-K program, said Chief Program Officer Dolores Gonzalez, which this year expanded to eight additional IDEA campuses.

“Why we feel so strongly about pre-kindergarten is because of the data that we were getting from our kindergartners,” Gonzalez said. “Depends on the school, but some had about 40 percent of kindergartners coming in not ready to start our kindergarten curriculum and as many as 70 or 80 percent of students at some particular schools.”

It was very difficult for even the best of their teachers to catch the students up with the basic skills to tackle the curriculum, she said, but now the pre-K program is filling this gap.

“In 90 percent-plus cases, students who go to our pre-K program are ready to start kinder or already into the kinder program by the time they get to kindergartner,” Gonzalez said.

The program has been slowly expanded to other Rio Grande Valley and Texas schools in the last few years and is slated to continue growing in the next years.

In 2015, pre-K classes began at the Alamo and Riverview campuses and this is the first year that the program is being offered at North Mission, Mission, McAllen, Edinburg, Quest, San Juan, Donna and Weslaco Pike.

There are 11 IDEA schools offering the program this year and many as 18 schools will have it in 2017. The goals is for all campuses in the Rio Grande Valley and Texas to start at pre-K and all new schools, such as the upcoming one at Tres Lagos in North McAllen, to be opened with pre-K from the get go, Gonzalez said.

The Pharr campus was the first to receive a cohort of the littlest students, who immediately joined into the school’s Direct Instruction model in which students’ progress is tracked individually even as their lessons are taught as a group.

“We do have a half-day program, but in those three hours and a half we focus on reading, language and math,” Aguilar said. “And then a little bit of science, writing and social and motor skills.”

The first few years might be an adjustment for the schools. At IDEA San Juan Academy, for example, where the program launched this fall, the teachers are still learning best practices and getting a better feel for their littlest students.

These teachers and teacher assistants count with coaches and assistant principals who solely focus on helping them better understand the teaching methods and provide overall support.

A big part of the Direct Instruction model, which is used from pre-K through second or third grade, is having the lessons fully prepared for the teachers and training them on best teaching practices, said Gonzalez.

“It is a model where we have, first of all, very robust teacher training to learn a curriculum that is very much structured,” she said. “Because it is so structured, a lot of the lessons are already written for teachers, which allows the teachers to really deliver the lessons in a really impactful way.”

With the lesson plan already in place, it the teachers to spend more time refining the delivery of the curriculum, she said, which can make a big difference when trying to keep the attention of a room full of four-year-olds.

“We learned that teachers needed not only the training in the curriculum, but they also needed training and support in non-academic areas,” Gonzalez said. “We focused on some social-emotional strategies to help these little ones.”

For teacher Medalia Gutierrez, a third-year pre-K teacher at Pharr and former third-grade teacher at Idea, the difference she has seen in her students through the years has been very encouraging, she said.

“It’s amazing to see them because once they leave pre-K, you see how much they’ve improved all around,” Gutierrez said.

The teachers are also in charge of assessing their student’s progress every week and to intervene. The idea is to help students learn at their pace and avoid them getting frustrated if they are not getting a lesson or bored if they have already understood the concept.

For Gutierrez, one of her main goals is to have her students prepared, not only for kindergarten, but for the full school-life ahead by having a strong foundation.

She used to teach kindergarten at a public school without the Direct Instruction model and said one of the main differences is that this model is filled with instruction time allowing them to make the most of the half-day.

“If these kids can leave learning their sounds and start reading in kinder right away, they are going to get the comprehension and getting those skills that they need to master,” Gutierrez said.

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