Early learning is a child’s play in Hockinson’s pre-kindergarten class

HOCKINSON — In groups of four, Shawn Spears led his young students on their pick of class adventures Tuesday afternoon. Drawing, playing with dinosaurs, practicing cutting shapes — it doesn’t matter, as long as they are engaged in what interests them most.

“It’s more about exposure than mastery,” said Principal Joshua Robertson as he watched his students at Hockinson Heights Elementary School explore their options for the day.

Spears’ class is one of four transitional kindergarten classes at the school. Known as “Kindergarten,” this year-long program enhances learning for students who have missed the kindergarten age limit or need assistance in several areas prior to entering primary school. Each class has a hard cap of 18 students.

“(Transition Kindergarten) is a real game changer,” said Sears, who has taught preschool through second grade. “It has launched beautifully. Giving teachers a voice in developing learning standards specifically tailored to our region is huge.”

Data that promises to fill in the gaps

The Hockinson School District, although one of the smallest districts in the area with 2,025 students this year, is Clark County’s largest provider of transitional kindergartens, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Battle Ground Public School and Evergreen Public School were behind.

Robertson said adding a transitional kindergarten in the fall of 2021 fills a need for early learning options and helps kindergartners who are struggling at school from day one.

“We are in an interesting place…(other counties) all have early learning programs like Head Start and (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) but we don’t have them in our area,” said Robertson. “We want to level the playing field when they get to kindergarten, that’s why we are after it.”

Data shared earlier this month by OSPI showed that students who moved to transitional kindergarten excelled in the following year’s kindergarten.

“Compared with their peers who are not attending kindergarten, kindergarten children with kindergarten experience are 13 percent more likely to meet kindergarten readiness standards in literacy,” said an OSPI press release on Feb. 1. “Students with disabilities with kindergarten experience were 42 percent more likely to be kindergarten ready in literacy, multilingual/English learners 33 percent more likely, and students who identified as low income were 29 percent more likely.”

OSPI reports that 85.4 percent of kindergarten students previously enrolled in transitional kindergarten met readiness standards in literacy, compared with 75.7 percent among students not in transitional kindergarten. The same trend applies to mathematics, where 73.9 percent of students previously enrolled in transitional kindergarten met readiness standards, compared with 67.2 percent among students who did not.

At Hockinson, Robertson says 45 of their kindergartners were in transitional kindergarten last year; 42 of the 45 were identified as meeting each of the standards in the state’s six proficiency areas: social-emotional, physical, cognitive, language, literacy, and math.

Student-led classrooms

With a total of 885 students, Hockinson Heights is the largest elementary school in Clark County. The transitional kindergarten program, however, doesn’t manage to get lost in that maze: It has its own separate building with four classrooms connected by a central gathering area where students have breakfast in the morning and organize their belongings in cubes.

In the classroom, much of the day is dedicated to the guided exploration that Robertson and Sears credit as so important for young students to gain experience in socializing and figuring out what makes sense to them.

“We want students to deal with disagreements naturally so we can help solve them instead of just solving everything for them,” says Robertson. “And usually, there aren’t a lot of behavior problems because kids just do what they want to do.”

Every few hours, Sears calls his students together for 10-minute group lessons, where they touch on basic lessons in reading and writing letters, repeating sounds in language, and, of course, politely debate their choice between nachos and tacos.

For the record: Taco saw nearly unanimous support.

“The way these kids have grown up is amazing. … I wish I could teach kindergarten like this,” said Ashley Crowley, another transitional kindergarten teacher in Hockinson Heights as she prepares her students to return from lunch.

The play-based model, he and Robertson said, has been so effective that they plan to change the normal kindergarten model next year to allow each class to lead with such a period of exploration before moving on to a more academic focus.

“Focusing on socialization is really important for kids this age,” says Robertson. “Parents can definitely help with academics at home, but this is where they can interact with other kids their age.”