Finally, the little dears are settling down.
That’s the gist of Payson Elementary School Principal Donna Haught’s progress report on concentrating all the district’s kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders on the same campus.
“Things are going great now,” said Haught of the ripple effects from closing Frontier Elementary School and concentrating all the K-2 students on one campus instead of three. “It’s quite a bit different. In the past, we had the older kids to help get the younger kids where they needed to go in terms of buses and parent pick-up — that’s probably the biggest challenge.”
Think of 535 little ducklings, scattering across the park — without a big duck to trundle along behind.
“It took a little time for them to settle in — but now they have,” said Haught, who recently made a presentation on the school’s status before the school board.
However, the school faces significant challenges, with new, national academic standards taking effect and state reforms that threaten grave consequences if kids can’t read fluently by third grade and if the bottom 20 percent of students don’t make significant gains academically each year.
However, the district’s teachers will have to cope with those changes while dealing with both larger classes and shrinking pay. In addition, since the recession hit home, the number of kids from low-income families has risen dramatically, which studies show can significantly affect academic performance.
Haught presented the board with test scores showing that Payson Elementary School students each year make huge strides in mastering core skills in reading and math, but that 10 to 30 percent don’t end the year able to perform at grade level.
For instance, in the fall of 2010, fewer than 10 percent of the kindergartners and first-graders hit the reading test benchmarks. About 45 percent of the second-graders hit the mark.
By the spring, 80 percent of the kindergartners, 70 percent of the first-graders and 88 percent of the third-graders had mastered the benchmark reading skill.
Gains in mathematics proved equally dramatic. At the start of the year, almost none of the first- and second-graders hit the benchmark and less than 10 percent of the kindergartners.
By the end of the school year, almost 80 percent of the kindergartners, 40 percent of the first-graders and 78 percent of the second-graders hit the benchmark scores.
This semester, the starting scores are about the same as last year across the board.
Those figures show that the great majority of students enter their grade level very shaky on those basic skills, but the great majority end the year right on target.
However, the state’s new rating system will grade schools based on how much academic progress the bottom 20 percent of the students make. Moreover, this year’s PES first-graders will face a new system that will prevent them from moving on from third grade if they’re not fluent in reading.
As a result, Payson Elementary School has continued with a recently developed program that gives struggling students extra help, often in the form of short pullout classes for very small groups of students working with a reading or math specialist.
Two different programs help schools identify and help those students, including Title 1 and Response to Intervention.
This semester, PES has 70 Title 1 students, who qualify for extra federal funding so the school can provide half-hour break-out classes with only five or six students. Out of those 70, six improved enough that they shifted out of the program.
The school also has 41 students in its Response to Intervention Program, another federally funded effort to identify and help struggling students before they fall too far behind their peers. Some 41 students are now enrolled in the RTI program, with one so far testing out after catching up on basic skills.
“We’ll know more after we get our winter benchmarks,” said Haught. “This is for students that might be having trouble — anywhere from knowing their letters to knowing their sounds. Some are going to be working on reading — sight words, reading lessons, initial sounds. So they do a lot of stuff. This is the area where students need extra help.”
Once again, the school has had to cope with parental confusion and disappointment about the lack of a free, all-day kindergarten program — one of the victims of the state budget cuts two years ago. The school has five classes full of kindergartners — three of them go all day. Parents whose five-year-old stays in the all-day class have to pay $185 per month.
Many parents want the all-day class, but simply can’t afford it. “We have a fair number,” said Haught.
“But a lot of them have been creative in finding people who can donate to Credit for Kids and find other solutions.”
The teachers and students have all struggled at times with the changes that come from combining students and faculty from three different campuses on a single campus.
“The students are coming into a new campus. They’re getting used to our rules and procedures. So now everything is gelling and coming together,” said Haught. “Kids are used to the new site. The teachers are getting in and working together.”
She predicted that having all the kids from one grade level at the same school will yield benefits as the teachers explore the possibilities.
Class sizes have risen to about 25, an increase of maybe 10 percent from last year when the lower grades had class sizes closer to 22. However, the classes are now all about the same size, in contrast to the dramatic differences that existed last year from one school to another based on the variations in the number of students in each grade at each site.
Haught said the teachers want to develop more teamwork, so they can mix and match their classes and develop different student groupings.
“We have professional learning teams,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll have four classes doing something together, sometimes it will involve two classes. I think we’re just now starting to feel a little bit more relaxed and able to work on some of that other stuff.”