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Janesville's 4K program thrives in first five years

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Frank Schultz
September 22, 2013

JANESVILLE—Jan Stark raves about the way 4-year-old kindergarten has changed her professional life.

The Janesville program known as Preschool for Janesville prepares the tykes for Stark's class. Stark teaches 5-year-old kindergarten.

“They come in knowing how to sit, how to listen,” Stark said of today's kindergartners.

It wasn't like that before P4J started here five years ago. Students also enter kindergarten knowing to raise their hands and walk quietly in the halls.

“We used to spend so much time on these skills in the first weeks of school,” said Stark, a 16-year teaching veteran.

Now, she can get down to the business of teaching the curriculum.

“They play together so nicely. … They know how to share, and they know how to take turns,” Stark said.

Kindergarten teachers across the district would tell you the same thing, said Kristen Moisson, who has been P4J coordinator from the beginning. Moisson, who also is principal of Jackson Elementary School, handed the job off to Angela Lynch this month.

BIG INFLUENCE

About 85 percent of the district's 5-year-old kindergartners attend P4J. Most do so in a church or other private preschool or at the Head Start program, all overseen by the school district. Five of the 19 sites are district elementary schools.

In all, the program educates more than 600 students in 42 to 45 classrooms.  Enrollment changes daily, especially at the beginning of the year. Last year's enrollment was 634.

The P4J curriculum, which has been cited as a high-quality program by the state, places high value on teaching how to get along with other students and classroom etiquette, but it also puts students on the path to their academic futures.

Most know their alphabets and the sounds of the letters, how to print their names and how to use a scissors by the time they get to kindergarten, Stark said.

Some parents worried when P4J was approved five years ago that children would be forced to learn academics before they were ready.

Moisson said that doesn't happen. Students don't use worksheets to learn their colors, for example. Instead, a teacher points out that the red car is faster than the blue car, or that the ball is purple, Moisson said.

“We're not holding anyone back, but we're not pushing anyone,” she said.

YOUNG READERS

Kindergarten used to be about learning the alphabet, Stark said. Now, it's about learning the basics of reading.

This year, Stark's class at Jackson School had one student already reading by the second week of school and several more on the brink of reading. That's a lot for this low-income part of town, Stark said.

Poverty was a big selling point when the school board approved P4J in 2007 on a 6-3 vote. The board had rejected 4K four years earlier, and the debate in 2007 was intense.

Officials pointed to studies showing high quality preschool could make a huge difference in the lives of poor students. For whatever reasons, students coming from poverty tend not to learn what students from more affluent homes learn. Students were coming to school never having the experience of someone reading to them, officials said. They didn't know how to open a book. Their vocabularies were limited.

THE PROGRAM

P4J students attend for 437 hours a year, averaging about 2.5 hours a day.  Each site determines how the hours are distributed and the length of the school year, but these are definitely part-time students.

Parents who work often schedule wrap-around child care at the same sites. P4J is free, but the child care might not be.

The program has made colleagues out of former competitors, Moisson said.

The different programs often help each other out, sharing resources, including substitute teachers. One program even loaned its specially equipped van when another site's van broke down, Moisson said.

“I think it's strengthened the community, I really do,” said Lynch, who has taught parenting classes to P4J parents and formerly worked for Head Start.

“It's strengthened the connections between the  (child-care) providers and our district,” she added.

The district offers free professional development for all the P4J teachers. One recent program was titled “Handwriting Without Tears.”

Moisson said parents can switch sites if they find one that better suits their needs, and they often do.

Keeping a child at home until 5-year-old kindergarten is “a perfectly fine option because we still believe the parent is their first teacher,” Moisson said.

FUTURE GAINS

Whether the gains that Stark mentioned carry over into the later grades has yet to be proved on the local level, although studies around the country indicate they should.

Third grade is the year Wisconsin students first take state standardized tests. Last year's third-graders included the first class of P4J kids. Moisson said an analysis of how P4J might have helped test scores has not been completed.

The state education department likewise does not have the data to correlate student performance on state tests with 4K participation.

Officials believe, however, that P4J will produce results as the students continue through their school years. That's a good thing because the state is raising expectations through introduction of the Common Core Standards, Moisson said.

Studies elsewhere say quality preschool can boost academics early and reduce costs for special education.

Some researchers have gone so far as to estimate huge savings to society—in lifetime earnings, health, and less drug abuse and incarceration—because children don't start behind their peers on their first day of school and never catch up.

POINT OF CONTENTION

Janesville School Board member Bill Sodemann was one of the “no” votes in 2007, and he remains opposed to the program on philosophical grounds.

“I'm in favor of early education,” said Sodemann, adding that the district is doing a good job of providing the service.

P4J helps children, and needy parents should have it available, Sodemann said, but he doesn't believe it should be provided for anyone who wants it.

"I want to help those who need help, but I don't want to enable those who want to forsake their duties to be parents,” Sodemann said.

Sodemann fears that children will grow up believing that getting the free service is the right way to raise their own children.

“It's important to have responsibilities and to do your job,” he said.



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