Boise pre-K program expands next week

Five years into a pre-K pilot program, the Boise School District is doubling down.

Free pre-kindergarten classes will open Monday at Garfield and Whittier elementary schools, as the district seeks to expand early education in neighborhoods with high poverty rates.

“Those are some of our highest needs schools,” said Stacey Roth, the district’s administrator of student programs.

The district is funding the $297,000 Garfield and Whittier programs, modeled after city-funded pre-K at Hawthorne and Whitney elementary schools. The city bankrolled the Hawthorne and Whitney pre-K programs as part of a larger effort to revitalize Boise’s Vista neighborhoods, and continues to cover nearly all program costs. (The city put $239,000 into these schools’ programs last year, while the district spent less than $6,000.)

The district and the city are funding pre-K in the absence of state dollars. Idaho is one of only four states that does not fund pre-K.

While funding pre-K has been an unpopular proposition at the Statehouse, Boise’s pre-K programs have proven to be a hit with parents. Pre-K will open nearly at capacity at Garfield and Whittier, and the district has waiting lists for spots in Hawthorne and Whitney, Roth said.

Garfield and Whittier will run half-day morning and afternoon sessions, and each school can accommodate 18 students per session.

Admission isn’t open to all students. The district screens 3- and 4-year-olds for letter awareness, accepting only students who fall below the 50th percentile. Families must meet income guidelines, but they also must provide transportation for their kids, and commit to volunteer in school at least two hours a week.

Garfield and Whittier both have high poverty rates. Like Hawthorne and Whitney, Garfield and Whittier provide free lunch to all students under the “community eligibility provision,” a federal rule that allows high-poverty schools to waive lunch costs entirely.

Meanwhile, both schools have high numbers of students with limited English proficiency: 27 percent at Garfield, 31 percent at Whittier.

District officials believe pre-K will bridge demographic and learning gaps — and Roth points both to anecdotal and empirical evidence.

Roth tells the story about one student who entered Whitney’s pre-K program as a 3-year-old, “super shy” and knowing only a single word of English. At the end of her second year in pre-K, the child scored “advanced” on Get Ready To Read, a screening test the Boise district uses to gauge pre-reading skills. Without two years of pre-K, Roth said, this child likely would have shown up for kindergarten at Whitney, shy and with limited English skills.

Vanessa Fry of Boise State University’s Idaho Policy Institute found that students who attended the Hawthorne and Whitney pre-K programs outscored their classmates on the fall 2016 Idaho Reading Indicator. These early results showed the fledgling programs appear to have a “positive impact” on students, Fry wrote in a 2017 study.

Fry will conduct a followup study for the district, Roth said.

Based on last year’s IRI, reading scores for the schools in the Boise pre-K program are mixed.

Overall — and accounting for all students, whether they attended pre-K or not — nearly 72 percent of Hawthorne’s kindergarten through third-grade students scored at grade level in the spring 2019 IRI. That score eclipsed state and district averages. Only 40 percent of Whitney’s students scored at grade level, far below state and district averages.

And as they embark on pre-K, Garfield and Whittier also have reading scores well below state and district averages. Forty-eight percent of Garfield’s K-3 students ended last school year reading at grade level; at Whittier, that number is 46 percent.

But Roth says the benefits of pre-K go beyond academics. Students who attend pre-K better understand how to behave and function in a classroom setting. And that rubs off on their kindergarten classmates.

“You need those kind of student mentors,” she said.

Coming in December: Is Idaho’s $26 million reading initiative working? Is the money helping young students at risk? We take an in-depth look.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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