Joe Walsh likes what he's seen at Orchard Elementary.
Walsh, the principal at Newman Elementary, has watched the South Side neighbor's kindergarten jumpstart program. The six-week, half-day summer program aims to help kids get a leg up on adapting socially and behaviorally to school, with some ABCs and 123s.
Newman and Orchard, plus Ponderosa Elementary, cater to a high proportion of kids from low-income families on Billings' South Side. Billings schools are zoned by neighborhood, and South Side neighborhoods are relatively poor.
Poor kids are less likely to begin school prepared socially or behaviorally. They're less likely to read or perform math at grade level, and gaps that begin in kindergarten are likely to stretch into high school. Ultimately, they're less likely to graduate high school or attend college.
They're also less likely to attend preschool. Walsh and other South Side principals believe, backed up by research, that addressing the front-end issue can lead to improvements on the back end.
“The more prepared they are to learn and to be students, the quicker we can begin to make progress with them and help them with all of the other things we are working on, from social-emotional growth to the academic stuff,” Walsh said.
The three-school group has proposed expanding the jumpstart program. Newman, Orchard, and Ponderosa would each have a classroom of about 20 students with two teachers for a six-week program.
“If I can have, here at Newman, my incoming kindergartners participate in a jumpstart start program here at Newman, they’ll get the opportunity to get used to the building, the routines… that would be ideal for them to be here in there own school.”
Orchard's jumpstart program started as a volunteer operation two years ago; last year, grant funding paid for teacher salaries. But an expansion requires a larger financial commitment.
“The challenge will be to find the funding,” said Billings Public Schools superintendent Greg Upham.
Montana schools have long received no summer-school specific funding, and the non-renewal of a state preschool program squashed hopes for expanded preschool funding from the state.
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Some districts operate summer school programs, and some operate public preschool programs, but most are small scale and depend on budget creativity or dipping into money usually spent during the regular school year on K-12 students. Districts like Billings, with elementary and high school funding split, can't mix money from the two different levels.
The jumpstart program would need money to pay teachers, mostly. Food would likely be provided through existing programs, as would school supplies. Transportation isn't provided for the current jumpstart program; if busing were included, that would be an additional cost.
If the district is going to shift existing money, it's a good bet administrators want bang for their buck.
“The data that we’ve collected over the last couple years really supports the need for the program,” said Orchard principal Dustin Gaugler. “I’ve noticed a significant increase in the readiness of the level of the kindergarten students they’ve had coming in the last couple years.”
Teachers running the original jumpstart program designed assessments similar to ones that Billings use to evaluate reading and math for young students, and they provided anecdotal behavioral reports.
If students begin school behind their peers, it's difficult to catch up.
“In some cases you’re being asked to make up a year-and-a-half or two-year deficit in a year,” Gaugler said. “We might close a little bit on the gap each year, but it’s extremely difficult to address that gap.”
Upham has repeatedly spoken about finding ways to extend school-time for students who need to close gaps. He agrees that the jumpstart program fills that time-extension prescription.
Principals also don't expect a six-week, 20 kid program to be a cure all.
“In no way is this a silver bullet that’s going to fix everything," Walsh said.
But they agree it's a step in the right direction. They hope that an expanded South Side program could be a model for the rest of the district's elementary schools in the way that Orchard has been a model for the past two years.