Most students at Twin Falls’ Lincoln Elementary School live below the poverty level. More than 10 percent of the 500 students are living in rentals, downtown motels or on the streets.
They enter kindergarten unable to speak English, recite colors or shapes and they lack social skills, an understanding of sharing and taking turns.
Principal Beth Olmstead will do just about anything to get those kids caught up quickly — when they are very young, and before they start school.
Idaho doesn’t require children to attend kindergarten or preschool and the state funds only voluntary half-day kindergarten. That’s not enough for many kids at Lincoln, said Olmstead.
“Some need to be there all day, every day,” she said. “If someone asked me the greatest need in education I would certainly say it’s a full day of kindergarten. No. 2 would be preschool.”
She’s so passionate about fulfilling that need she finds money — under nooks and crannies and with very little help from the state — to make it happen.
“I do everything I can to keep it going,” she said. “But how much they grow is amazing to me. That motivates me.”
During the 2013-14 school year, Lincoln’s full-time kindergarten students went from 40 percent proficient in reading to 92 percent.
Not every child has the opportunity for full-day kindergarten. Staff members select students who need it most — about 20 at a time — and rotate kids in and out of the full-time exposure to trained teachers.
“We have to be really selective and they are pretty coveted spots,” said kindergarten teacher Ali Seamons. “Once they get caught up to their classmates, they move back to half-day and another child rotates in so as many kids as possible are exposed to as much school as possible.”
Lincoln started full-day kindergarten in 2004 by using an after-school program grant. Since kindergarten is only funded for half day, the second half of the day was considered “after school.” When the grant ended, Lincoln spent a year continuing the program by charging parents for the second half of the day but it became too difficult to manage and collect money.
“Parents appreciated the program and students flourished,” Olmstead said.
Principal Bill Brulotte was instrumental in getting full-day kindergarten launched at Perrine Elementary School in 2005. He mixed a class of 16 with low- and high-performing kids. Scores went up rapidly.
“We saw a huge shift with all-day kids,” said Brulotte, now the district’s director of federal programs, policies and grants. “We had fewer learning interventions (in first grade) because we caught things early enough. Only five states in the country do not require kindergarten and we are one of them. I’d like to see that change.” (Click here for an interactive state-by-state map on the status and funding of kindergarten programs.)
Eventually, the federal money ran out at Perrine, even after administrators tried a parent-pay program that cost about $220 per month. The all-day program is no longer offered at Perrine, but Lincoln has been able to sustain it with federal monies and thanks to Olmstead’s money-juggling skills.
“This is making a change in the lives of kids where their families are barely able to make ends meet and so don’t always have enough time to spend with their young children,” Brulotte said. “So many good things happen to kids when they are in school.”