Nezperce’s grade school has a lot going for it: small class sizes, dedicated and experienced teachers, aides and administrators, and a supportive community.
Those features helped Nezperce score among the best in the state on the Idaho Reading Indicator, a standardized reading test for children in grades K-3.
Nezperce has about 50 students in grades K-3 and more than 87 percent of them are reading at grade level or above, according to the 2019 spring IRI. Across Idaho, the average is 69.7 percent.
“We have an amazing group of veteran (kindergarten through third grade) teachers,” said Shawn Tiegs, superintendent of the Nezperce School District. Tiegs also mentioned the class sizes and a “great group of paraprofessionals that can tailor individual instruction under teacher guidance.”
Preschool, however, might just be the factor that gives Nezperce an edge over other schools.
About a decade ago, Marietta Leitch, who has spent the bulk of her more than three-decade career as the kindergarten teacher in Nezperce, proposed an all-district, publicly funded preschool. Nezperce was previously busing students who qualified to Craigmont for Highland School District’s Head Start Program.
The school board and administration approved Leitch’s proposal. Now, all preschoolers in the district are invited to a two-morning-per-week preschool, taught by Leitch in the same classroom she teaches kindergarten. Preschool is not funded by the state so if school districts want to offer preschool, they must take the money from other state-funded programs, use local levy money or offer tuition-based classes.
Most of the kids who are invited attend, Leitch said, and after having acclimated to the school setting, routines and expectations, they’re excited — and prepared — to return the following year as kindergartners.
“Now, the only ones crying on the first day of kindergarten are the parents,” Leitch said.
Leitch estimates that preschool puts kindergartners about six weeks ahead of where they would be without it.
In addition to preschool, a couple of years ago Nezperce started using state literacy funds for a “jump-start” program for kids who need extra support.
The kids are invited to come into the school for 12 mornings in the first part of August.
“I designed it to be very much like a summer reading camp,” said Leitch, who proposed the jump-start program and teaches the reading portion of it.
Leitch and Tiegs also both mentioned the students’ parents and community as being positive factors.
“We have supportive and engaged parents and a wonderful community library that provides amazing early childhood learning opportunities,” Tiegs said.
In addition to after-school and summer reading programs, the library is developing a fun, canine-focused idea.
Terra Baldus, librarian at the Nezperce Community Library, is currently working with Natalie Riggers, school counselor, to implement a program where kids can read to Riggers’ golden retriever Wink, who has earned his “canine good citizenship” certificate.
Studies have shown that children benefit from reading to dogs.
“Basically, it gives children an opportunity to read to someone who won’t correct them, won’t judge them and responds to their enthusiasm,” Baldus said via email. “It helps build confidence in readers who might be a little hesitant to read out loud to others. It’s also just a fun way to encourage reading. The benefits of reading are limitless and it’s a great way to show kids how much fun it is to read!”
Bridget Lux lives in Nezperce and writes for the The Idaho County Free Press.