When Fair Lawn teachers and administrators saw certain students continue to struggle with learning difficulties through elementary and middle school, they decided to address the problem at its source.
The district will introduce a supplemental kindergarten program for the 2013 school year, adding two hours and fifteen minutes of instruction time in literacy and math for kindergarteners identified by the district as in special need of basic skills development.
“The whole idea of getting kids help is the earlier you get it, the quicker it sets in and the better chance they have of a better education as they move up,” Superintendent Bruce Watson said.
The screening process to identify children in need of support will begin in March, as parents start registration for September kindergarten. Close observation of students’ learning and social habits will continue through the first two months of class, and testing and teacher evaluation will identify students eligible for the program, which parents can send their students to voluntarily.
The program will begin October 28, to allow teachers time to evaluate students after they’ve settled into the classroom socially.
The tests for eligibility in the program, Assistant Superintendent Natalie Lacatena said, are “not a predictor of future success. They’re really just a snapshot of where the children are at the moment.”
An issue is that, at age five, an age difference of just a few months can leave a significant gap in cognitive development between students, with the possibility that children with birthdays late in the school year will fall behind their class early. Lacatena pointed out that these gaps even out as students get older, but the supplemental program will help put students on an even ground as they move into early elementary grades.
The program will cost the district an estimated $200,000, much of which will come from federal funds allocated to the district through Title I of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The program, Watson says, was developed by the district without any like models in surrounding towns, based on research conducted by the board of education.
Eligible students will have the opportunity to attend the program either in the morning or afternoon—opposite of the time they attend their regular kindergarten class. The four classes will be split between the Warren Point School, where Milnes and Radburn students will also attend, and Forrest Elementary, where students will be joined by kindergarteners from Lyncrest and Westmoreland. Midday transportation will be provided by the district.
One of the key features of the program will be fostering supportive educational environments at home.
“What we are trying to do is at a very young age get a partnership with parents. You need parents. If you go to districts that are not doing well, I guarantee you’ll see a high rate of parent noninvolvement,” Watson said.
Part of that will be providing guidance in how to continue basic skill development at home, by increasing conference time and communication between teachers and parents of students in the program.
“We want to bolster teacher/parent relationships,” Watson said. “So whatever the teacher is working on, we want the parent to be able to take some facet of that and support the child at home.”
The district hopes that, by essentially giving a head start to the early intervention programs already in place at elementary schools, it can bring students up to grade level reading and arithmetic early on, and prevent a wrong first step from snowballing into more serious learning difficulties later in life.
“If a child is undetected as having learning problems, whether they be reading, processing, memorization, or any of those skill sets, if they fall through the cracks then all of a sudden you find out a child is in sixth grade and they have these problems," Watson said. "That’s pretty late in life to really turn that kid around.”