In its first year, the new Park City School District preschool program is already showing results, working to close the achievement gap of the district's incoming Caucasian and Hispanic kindergarteners. For the past year, the district has been collecting information to determine whether the new program which was first developed in Granite School District would give Hispanic students the extra language skills they need when they start school.
Shifting away from the federally funded Headstart program, the new preschool class is a more structured setting with a greater emphasis on classroom skills such as working in groups and speaking in front of a classroom as well as developing basic reading skills. Preschoolers are also provided more individualized instruction based on assessments taken three times over the course of the year, and for those coming into the classroom speaking English as a second language, the individualized attention shows in their test scores.
"The kids are assessed, and then we use the results of that assessment," said the Park City School District early childhood coordinator Kathy Anderson. "Preschool teachers use the results to guide their instruction, to target the right lessons. With that system, we've seen significant gains in both our English- and Spanish-speaking students."
While English-speaking preschoolers still made up a majority of the program at 69 percent, the district served a greater percentage of Hispanic students in preschool than in the other grade levels. At the preschool level, Hispanic students made up 31 percent of enrolled children. In the K-12 program, that number is closer to 20 percent.
Test scores reflect the difference two years of preschool can make. When first entering the classroom, English as a Second Language students tested well below their Caucasian counterparts, below the district's targeted scores and somewhere closer to special needs children. But after a year in the new program, those scores rose dramatically, meeting or exceeding the outlined target.
"This program is leveling the playing field when kids start kindergarten," Anderson said. "When Hispanic students start, they are up against a lot of kids who have already been in preschool settings.
"It's not that these kids have special needs; it's the language barrier."
The assessments are given completely in English, a factor in the preliminary scores, Anderson said. But after a year in the program, the difference is dramatic as students grasp better language skills. In some cases, Anderson saw students come in to the classroom with no English skills and leave preschool having natural conversations in English.
"At the beginning of the program, we are comparing apples and oranges with students that can and cannot speak English," Anderson said.
" the end, students who had no English skills are able to speak English," she added. "They can talk to their peers, and you see their confidence rise. We want these students to be able to speak English."
The program was piloted McPolin Elementary School two years ago and expanded into all four of the district's elementary schools last year. But with the new program, the district needed a way to pay for the change. Parents paid for preschool on a sliding scale based on income, but next year those discounts will cost parents' time as well, including volunteering in schools and programs, taking English classes or finding other opportunities to give back to the school district. Parents will be required to give six hours a month of their time to get reduction.
The school district will follow the preschoolers as they continue their education with the hopes that students who once under-performed will be more competitive with their fellow students.
"I'd say biggest success in talking to our kindergarten teachers this year is that students are coming in ready to go," Anderson said. "Teachers are not setting up a learning environment like they have in past years. Students come in understanding how a classroom works."