Sometimes you hear that Idaho’s educators are “failing” our students, but don’t believe it. You can look across Idaho and see educators who are working hard and smartly every day to set students up for success in school, work, and life. These are not the “industrial style” schools that critics so often describe to hurt our public schools.
Two school districts where educators are knocking it out of the park are more than 400 miles apart but aligned in the way they are intelligently teaching kindergarten students how to read.
A new case study by the State Board of Education shows that Central Canyon Elementary in the Vallivue School District, which has 54 percent low-income students, and Greensferry Elementary in the Post Falls School District, where one out of every four students are low income, have devised effective strategies in transitioning from part-day to full-day kindergarten. Those strategies are resulting in significant reading improvements among students.
Central Canyon started full-day kindergarten in the 2020-2021 school year by piecing together money from various sources. It started using state funding during the 2021-22 school year. In that year, 35 percent of the students entering kindergarten were proficient readers. By the spring semester 84 percent of the students were proficient.
The following fall 41 percent of the students entered kindergarten as proficient readers and by spring 86 percent were proficient.
Greensferry Elementary had comparable results. In the fall of 2021, 27 percent of the students entered kindergarten proficient and by spring 80 percent were proficient. In the fall of 2023, 43 percent of the kindergarteners were proficient and by the spring 84 percent were.
Keep in mind that even more students might have entered kindergarten as proficient readers if the state provided any financial support to get 4-year-olds ready to learn when they entered school.
So, what’s the secret of these schools’ success?
First, and, most importantly they are being intentional about the way they implemented their full-day kindergarten programs. They didn’t just add “fun activities” with their additional instructional time. Every minute of the day is planned and is used to achieve success. They are also ensuring that every teacher is applying the science of reading to their instruction.
Second, they use data to guide instruction. They constantly look at how each student is progressing and decide how to improve their proficiency. Staff share data with each other, the district and with parents. Data transparency is part of their culture.
They are masters at time management. They changed their school schedule to ensure time to help students who need extra instruction. At Greensferry Elementary they use the bulk of the mornings focused on “academic rigor” and integrate other learning time for music, library, and physical education later in the day.
“Every minute is intentionally used,” according to Greensferry Principal Kathy Baker.
Collaboration and learning are other keys. Besides data sharing, teachers meet in groups and discuss ideas about how to improve each student’s proficiency. And learning doesn’t just stop at the end of the school day. At Greensferry they have an “all hands-on deck” philosophy which extends to parents, volunteers, and the wider community.
Principal Baker attributes her school’s success to “systems thinking,” something she learned in graduate studies at the University of Idaho. Early in her career as a teacher, Baker said she didn’t have any of the data and “science of reading” pedagogy that is now available to her teachers.
Central Canyon and Greensferry have been singled out by the State Board and Department of Education for their success, but they are not public-school unicorns when it comes to improving student achievement. There are other exemplary “best practices” across Idaho which the State Board and State Department want to highlight.
So, the next time you hear someone complain about “failing schools,” remind them that Idaho’s educators labor every day to set students up for success. And they achieve considerably more success than their critics give them credit for.