Early Kindergarten Now Underway at Belmont Hills Elementary

Students in the proof of concept Early Kindergarten program at Belmont Hills Elementary School talk with CCSD Superintendent Chris Ragsdale about what they are learning.

Some students walked in Belmont Hills Elementary holding their parents’ hands. Other students stepped off the school bus for the first time. They met their teacher, hung up their book bags and sat down to color and work on puzzles in their class. One student hugged his mom, not wanting her to leave. A few parents huddled in the classroom doorway watching their children transition to their new role as students.

A typical first day of kindergarten scenario, except it happened on May 31 with 22 kindergarteners kicking off their education journey in the Cobb County School District’s (CCSD) proof of concept Early Kindergarten program.

“Our focus is on academic preparedness,” said Superintendent Chris Ragsdale. “Our job is to make sure we move students from kindergarten through first grade. We are making sure the students who are coming to Early Kindergarten are getting access to early learning. We have a goal to have students reading on grade level by third grade. This is another tool we are  using to obtain that goal.”

“The Early Kindergarten model launching at Belmont Hills Elementary School can be directly credited to the vision of Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and our Board of Education,” said Dr. Mary Elizabeth Davis, CCSD Chief Academic Officer. “Together, they have a commitment to developing innovative environments for students to have more time and opportunity to learn. This groundbreaking model where rising kindergarteners can access two additional months of literacy rich instruction is yet another example of Mr. Ragsdale’s continued investment in student success.”

Mom Melissa Olalde, who confessed she was a bit nervous to leave her daughter Melody in a new environments, thought her daughter would benefit from interacting with other student in the Early Kindergarten program. Melody did not attend a pre-kindergarten program outside the school district, so the Belmont Hills pilot program is her first introduction to a school environment.

“The younger you expose [children] to the education system [the more it] paves the way for them,” said Melody’s mom. “I’m excited for [Melody]. It is a new adventure.”

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Melody and her classmates will have a jumpstart on their kindergarten peers, who start school on July 31, according to CCSD Early Learning Supervisor Courtney Jones. This group will work on the prerequisite skills needed for kindergarten, get to know their friends earlier and build a relationship with their teacher, Nerlie Alexandre, who will teach them through their kindergarten graduation in May 2018.

“With these kids, when school starts, we won’t have to do what the other kindergarten classes are doing,” Alexandre explained. “We will already be in school mode. So we will get right into the curriculum.”

During the pilot program, Alexander plans to introduce the students to books and reading and a structured school environment with rules like sitting down in groups and walking quietly in line. The students will also take breaks for recess and lunch.

“Our goal is to make it as similar as possible to what kindergarten will look like,” Alexandre explained. “I will implement the specials like art, P.E., computer and music.”

To determine whether the pilot program is successful at preparing students for kindergarten, school staff plan to assess all the students at the start of the program. They will use the assessment to determine the prerequisites and skills that need focus.

“Our assessment will be given again at the midpoint of the program and at the end of the program because we really want to see what growth is made during these six weeks,” Jones explained. “We will also assess our kids at the beginning of the year and compare that data to those students who start at the traditional start of the school year.”

If the District staff does see a marked difference between the pilot group and those kindergarten students who start school on July 31, Jones said they might consider rolling out the Early Kindergarten program to other CCSD schools. They also plan to compare the two groups of kindergarten students again at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

On the first day of the pilot program at Belmont Hills, there were 22 students enrolled, but more students may join them.

To welcome the students to school, Belmont Hills staff set up first-day-of-school photo shoots. They also had gift bags to ease the transition for parents. A note attached to the bags comforted the parents: “We leave you today with tissues to dry your eyes and hugs and kisses to remind you of your new kindergartener’s adventures!”

Describing it as warm and friendly, Melody’s mom appreciated the first-day-of-school welcome.

Ralph Kendrick, who will be helping Alexandre as the kindergarten paraprofessional, enjoyed seeing the new group of students and is looking forward to watching their growth over the next year. Kendrick also praised the parents who enrolled their students in the Early Kindergarten program.

“To drop [the students off] this early during the summer shows that [the parents] care about the program that we have started,” Kendrick said.

For Alexandre, the first day of school was also a reunion.

“I have [taught] their siblings before,” the kindergarten teacher recalled. “So they kind of know me. It was fun to see their sisters or brothers who I had last year or the year before.”

The older siblings helped encourage the new kindergarteners, who the teachers described as upbeat and happy on their first day of school.

As the kindergarteners walked in a line to breakfast and then sat eating in the cafeteria on that first day of school, they looked like they had adjusted to their new school environment and were ready to learn new skills.

“We are looking forward to the next six weeks of great learning,” said Jones, smiling.