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Early childhood series: Part 3 – K-3 Plus helps close the gap

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

DEMING – This is a place where kids who qualify for federally funded free breakfast and lunch at school get back in line to see if there are leftovers.

Some are so poor they show up to class without pen or paper, in flip-flops, or they don’t show up at all. A large number transfer from school to school because their families can’t pay the rent and have to move.

Poverty is a constant stressor in Deming, as are the failing grades of four of its six public elementary schools. There’s a lot wrong; a lot school administrators say they can’t do much about.

But a visit to Jill Wellington’s kindergarten class on the first day of the school year in August was reason to celebrate.

“Crisscross applesauce,” Wellington tells the 22 students at Memorial Elementary School. They immediately plop down on the rug and fold their hands in their laps. They know the routine. They know the teacher. They already know one another. And they get to work learning.

They’ve started the school year early – in June – as part of a program called K-3 Plus, a voluntary enrollment program that runs from kindergarten through third grade and aims to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and others.

Children from low-income homes often start out behind when they enroll in kindergarten, but an ongoing study of the New Mexico program has shown the extra five weeks in the classroom each year through third grade can help them catch up.

So innovative was the program when it was launched under the Richardson administration that researchers at Utah State University received a $19 million federal grant for a longitudinal study of its cost benefits and its impact on student achievement.

State funding for the initiative has tripled over the past two years. This year, the Legislature kicked in an extra $5 million to extend eligibility to 75 more schools and an additional 16,900 students.

Deming Superintendent Harvielee Moore, who plans to retire next year after a 46-year career in the school district, is grateful the state is funding the initiative.

“Some of our families are struggling more than ever,” Moore said last month. “We have growing numbers of children who are hungry. I believe K-3 Plus will help level the playing field.”

Poverty’s effects

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, preschool-age children from low-income households score 60 percent below children in the highest socioeconomic group on cognitive tests. They know only one-third of the words, 4,000 compared with 12,000.

That’s not surprising to Bell Elementary School Principal Frank Milo.

“Just in the (school) cafeteria, kids at the beginning of the school year would raise their milk carton and shake it when they wanted the milk carton opened. Now they’ll ask, ‘Will you open my milk?’ Before, they couldn’t articulate that question.”

Luna County tops the state in children under age 18 living in poverty, at 51 percent, and in the percentage of adults over age 16 lacking basic prose literacy at 33 percent, according to the 2013 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Deming is 33 miles from the Mexican border, and the school district has the highest percentage of migrant worker families in the state.

But Dana Irby, associate superintendent of instructional service, said the limited vocabulary of some students isn’t the result of families speaking Spanish instead of English.

“It’s not because their parents are stupid. It’s not a second language that’s producing these gaps. It’s poverty,” she said. Some students entering kindergarten come from homes where the language is very simple, if it is used at all, Irby added.

“So when they enter kindergarten, they are already behind.”

Oral language leads to reading proficiency. And mastery of reading by third grade is a critical milestone in a student’s academic career. That’s why the extended school year is being offered through third grade. And why the program is part of a growing number of early childhood initiatives in New Mexico.

Utah State University researchers have included two Deming elementary schools, including Memorial, as part of Start Smart, a formal randomized control trial of the K-3 Plus program in eight New Mexico school districts.

The five-year study has two more years to go, but preliminary results show positive effects on third-grade reading, writing and math.

“I was a little surprised by the magnitude of the effect,” said Damon Cann, project co-investigator. “The effect of having just an extra month of school for these kids before the regular school year starts is really substantial and really does give them a leg up and prepared to succeed in kindergarten.”

The initiative has the potential to reduce the need for and cost of remediation in later grades, according to the state Legislative Education Study Committee.

Cann said no other state in the country has a program like K-3 Plus, adding, “New Mexico is an innovator in this area.”

The cost per student per year: $1,100 for the additional five weeks of school, according to the LFC.

A May 2008 analysis of K-3 Plus by Albuquerque Public Schools reported that teachers overall expressed high satisfaction with the program.

“They see many benefits to students, not only gains in academic achievement but also increased psychological preparation,” the analysis said. APS offers the program in more than 20 elementary schools.

The Legislative Finance Committee has concluded that the benefits are greater when the student has had at least two years of K-3 Plus and if K-3 Plus teachers are paired during the summer with the same students they planned to teach during the rest of the year.

It’s still a voluntary program statewide, and of those eligible in 2012 to participate, only 16 percent enrolled statewide. The Deming Public School District received funding for 872 K-3 Plus students this summer; final attendance numbers aren’t yet available.

But last year, according to the state Public Education Department, the program attracted fewer than 250 students in the district.

Some parents don’t enroll, Irby said, because they send their children back to Mexico to stay with extended family for the summer.

Moreover, in 2012, the PED didn’t notify school districts until May 30 that they had received extra funding for the summer program. This year, however, the PED gave districts more time to plan and recruit parents and teachers by issuing notifications on April 15.

From a D to an F

Milo transferred to Bell Elementary a year ago as the “turnaround” principal.

His job is to raise proficiency at the school, in which 95 percent of the students are below the poverty level.

Although test scores went up last year in some grades, school officials say, the school dropped from a D grade to an F under the PED statewide grading system.

“It was heartbreaking; it was spirit-breaking,” Milo said. Bell already participates in K3-Plus.

But state Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, sponsored legislation this year to expand the program to other schools that were graded D and F and to lower the eligibility requirement to schools with at least 80 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-fee lunches from the previous threshold of 85 percent.

That passed and was signed by the governor.

Stewart said there’s discussion about extending the program to include fourth and fifth grades.

“If I had my way, we would go to school longer. It wouldn’t be voluntary. It would be mandatory (the extra 25 days). It’s just hard to do that, because when you make things mandatory, you have to fund them for everybody.”

Implementing mandatory K-3 plus in all of New Mexico’s high poverty elementary schools would cost an additional $25 million to $30 million a year, according to LFC staff.

Not all bad news

Moore said there are a lot of positives in her district of about 5,400 students.

Last May, for instance, the son of a migrant worker who didn’t learn English until he was in fourth grade graduated as high school valedictorian.

Since 2008, the Deming Public School District’s graduation rate has exceeded the state and national percentages. And Moore said there are increasing numbers of students attending post-school training and/or education.

Moore said her recent conversation with a graduating senior underscored the need for hope.

“I asked, ‘What can I as superintendent do?’ … and one boy told me, ‘Tell them (other students) there’s a world out there.’ They don’t believe it’s for them.”

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