Catching up in kindergarten

Children who start school way behind in English fluency and with other learning problems can catch up — with a lot of help in kindergarten. In the Washington Post, Jay Mathews writes about how Johnny learned to read in a Maryland kindergarten that focused intently on his problems.

Schools are deluged every fall with students whose low-income or foreign-born parents do not speak with or read to them enough, even in their native tongue. This has produced an unnerving language gap, with some 5-year-old children of affluent parents entering school knowing 13,000 English words and some children from poor or immigrant families knowing as few as 500.

The Montgomery County district reduced class size to 13 to 14 in kindergarten and extended the school day to 6 1/2 hours. Kids who are disabled or significantly behind get special attention.

Within two months of Johnny’s arrival, the school organized a strategy session with only one topic on the agenda: how to help Johnny. There were eight people there: (teacher Kathleen) Cohan, the principal; a speech pathologist; a special education specialist; a pupil personnel worker (a combined social worker and truant officer); Johnny’s parents; and an interpreter.

They shared ideas. They worked out a plan. They marked their calendars for the next meeting — there would be four strategy sessions for Operation Johnny that school year. Cohan placed the boy near her so she could make sure he finished the activities and games she had for him. She had made videos of some of her lessons to help Johnny’s parents, and the parents of other struggling students, try them at home.

The number of kindergarteners passing a grade-level language arts test has soared. And Johnny, now a first graders, can read.

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