Billings educators have already raved about an expanded summer school program aimed at helping kindergartners get a leg up.
Now, they feel like they've got data to back up those comments.
Principals from three South Side schools that offered a kindergarten jumpstart program this summer — a six-week, half-day, preschool-lite model — told district trustees that children who participated in the program scored higher on early reading and math assessments than their peers.
"We were pretty excited to see where they were,” said Ponderosa principal Clay Herron.
Overall, 63% of students at Ponderosa, Newman, and Orchard elementary schools were considered "low-risk" — the best score category — on early reading assessments given in grades K-2. That's far above the 35% of all kindergartners at the three schools in "low-risk."
Newman saw the steepest gains, but each school had at least an 11% gap. Math assessment scores showed similar improvements among jumpstart students.
The jumpstart program is effectively in its second stage of pilot testing. It was started by an Orchard teacher in 2017 on a volunteer-only basis, then received some funding the next year. In 2019, the three schools decided to use Title 1 funding — federal money designated for aiding students from low-income families — to expand the program.
Newman, Orchard and Ponderosa each have some of the highest poverty rates in the school district. Those rates typically correlate with test scores and other measures of academic achievement, following a long-established national trend.
“I think what you would find is all of the Title schools cluster toward the (lower) side,” said Orchard principal Dustin Gaugler of usual test scores among SD2 schools.
Case in point: Orchard, Newman and Ponderosa had the three lowest average reading scores among district elementary schools this fall on reading exams given to third-fifth graders.
But scores among jumpstart kids disrupt that trend. The 63% figures would be the third-highest school in the district.
There could be some self-selection among families interested in the jumpstart program who already have worked to prepare their kids for school, academically and behaviorally, leading to a less-representative pool of students.
Ponderosa was the only school that prioritized students who displayed academic or behavioral risk-factors during a pre-program screening, but it still saw a 29% gap on math scores and 22% gap in reading in favor of the jumpstart students.
Scores show promise even when looking at how the whole grade level stacks up; the schools ranked 7th, 11th and 18th in the fall reading scores, a major improvement compared to the bottom-three average for older grades.
No one in SD2 has trumpeted the jumpstart program as a robust preschool on par with federal programs like Head Start, or as some sort of silver bullet. Instead it's viewed as a step in the right direction, both toward preschool and summer school. Superintendent Greg Upham likes to encompass both concepts when he talks about "expanding the school day" for students who struggle to reach academic goals.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re closer to the district average," Gaugler said. "That’s in three years. I’m excited to see what's going to happen in the next three years.”
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Elementary schools weren't the only ones that edged toward summer school. Riverside Middle School added a new, small-scale summer school program that targeted kids who needed extra help.
The school used recommendations from teacher work group called PLCs — the reason for Wednesday early outs — to refer students.
"We wanted to make sure it was a targeted intervention," Riverside principal Kevin Kirkman told trustees.
Much like the elementary schools, Riverside has a high proportion of students from low-income families. Those students are often more susceptible to summer learning loss, widely known as the "summer slide."
Overall, 17 rising seventh-graders attended, and 15 rising eighth-graders attended, though not every student took classes on every subject.
About half of the students who participated in the program actually saw their assessment scores improve compared to the end of seventh grade and the beginning of eighth grade. Rising seventh-graders improved their average grades in class by up to 25% compared to sixth-grade.
"This is an average, too. We have kids that aren't doing so well," Kirkman said. "(But) making growth is awesome," Kirkman said. "We were hoping that we would keep them maintaining where they were at."
The rising eighth-grader scores also reflect a mobility challenge at Riverside. Students in schools with high poverty rates are more likely to move during the school year, switching schools or perhaps districts. Of the 15 rising eighth-graders, only nine were at the school for eighth-grade testing.
Recruiting was one of the biggest challenges for the program, Kirkman said. Some students and parents declined an invite, though the school also got additional calls asking about summer school enrollment.
When planning the program, Kirkman said one of Riverside's biggest concerns was the perception of summer school — that it was uncool or punitive. The half-day schedule included open gyms and reward drawings for things like good attendance.
"At first (several kids) thought this was a punishment," he said. "But I think that after they were here for three weeks, they realized that this was a great learning opportunity for them."
Transportation was one of the continuing hurdles throughout the summer. The program's $7,000 budget didn't include busing. Offering busing in the future could improve attendance, Kirkman said.
"Even if it's paying for a three-week bus route, let's do it," he said.
Many students from lower-income families enter kindergarten without first having taken preschool, effectively starting them behind. Some teachers are trying to mitigate that by providing a half-day preschool-like program in the summertime to prepare those students who might not have the opportunity to attend preschool.