COLUMBIA — Little learners slowly walk in a straight line into the vibrant classroom, quietly place their matching backpack and lunch pail sets in the closet, and head directly over to the rainbow-colored carpet. They sit on tiny strips of tape with their names painted in red across them.
Excitement can hardly be contained any longer, and the silence is broken by laughter and tales of zoos, toy cars and swimming pools. Debi Kupferer walks over to a CD player, and the students immediately hush and wait for their cue. The music begins, and they place their hands in their laps and begin singing.
But these 4- and 5-year-olds have never attended school before.
The Newton Learning summer school program through Columbia Public Schools offers classes for students entering kindergarten the following fall. For five years, incoming kindergartners have had the opportunity to participate and begin learning the basics of kindergarten — for example, how to stand in straight lines, raise a hand when wanting to speak and sit for extended periods of time.
This summer, 700 incoming kindergartners enrolled in summer school at 10 schools, according to Roy Moeller, regional manager for the Newton Learning program. Thirty-two kindergarten teachers are in charge of classrooms of about 20 students each, though some are bigger.
Kupferer, a kindergarten teacher at Shepard Elementary School, said that at the beginning of summer school, some students hid under desks or cried for their mothers when they left. Just four weeks later, students are sitting for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, raising their hands when they want to speak and respecting their peers. Kupferer makes students kiss their brain by touching their fingers to their lips and then to their head when they make good decisions and take care of themselves.
Jennifer McCann, mother of 5-year-old Brandon, an incoming kindergartner at Derby Ridge Elementary School, said summer school works for her because she works during the week.
“Brandon really wanted to go, so we let him go,” she said. “He’s made friends, and he understands the routines.”
Although the structure of summer school is only different from the normal school year in terms of it being more relaxed, Kupferer said, students are getting an experience similar to what they will have in the fall when they start regular school.
“I incorporate the things I do in my classroom, the things I need them to do,” she said. “The main thing we want these incoming kindergartners to learn and understand is how to sit through a whole day and how to understand that you have to raise your hand but you might not always get called on.”
Aside from Brandon coming home grumpy and tired, McCann said she doesn’t see any negative effects of summer school. “But that’s going to happen in the fall anyway,” she said. Kupferer also talked about exhaustion of her students in the afternoon. She said that 15 of her 20 students sleep soundly and that she “really has to work to wake them up.”
New Haven parent Kristen Strouss said she can see the benefits of summer school but did not send her incoming kindergartner, Lauren.
“I can see some benefits,” Strouss said. “Lauren will have a bit of adjusting to do since she didn’t go to pre-school like most of the other kids that will be in her class.”
Strouss said a two-week program might be optimal for students. Since teachers typically spend two weeks mainly learning rules of school, a two-week program right before school might be better, Strouss said. “I would be much more apt to put Lauren in something like that as opposed to four weeks of summer school,” she said.
Kupferer provides incentives for her students to stay motivated and positive during the month-long session. She has a jar set aside into which the class can add marbles by doing things such as remaining quiet during circle, being productive during activity centers and being respectful of one another. Once 20 marbles are in the jar, the class receives a prize that they collectively vote on. Kupferer said that earlier this summer, after the students had 20 marbles, they had a popcorn and movie day. The next prize, scheduled for today, the last day of the session, is a water squirt day, for which the students bring squirt bottles and go outside to spray each other.
Kupferer has been in Columbia for only a few years and was new to the idea of summer school for kindergartners. She said she first thought it was crazy, but later realized its potential for students. With higher expectations of reading and writing by completion of kindergarten, Kupferer thinks it is ideal for incoming kindergartners to get a head start.
Kupferer said the program alleviates the anxiety students starting in the fall might otherwise have.
Parents might have some anxiety because summer school teachers provide them with limited information, McCann said. Although she said it is OK for now, since her son appears to be enjoying himself and doing well, she would like more than the “generic Friday letter” sent home.
Among other districts that offer similar programs for entering kindergarten students is Webster Groves School District. Danielle Egeling, a teacher in the Webster Groves District said its Pre-K summer school “jump start” program is optional. Egeling said that Webster Groves faculty go through the entering kindergarten applications to see if students have attended pre-school. If they have not, the faculty invites them to participate in the jump start program, the equivalent of Columbia’s Newton Learning program. The jump start program is free, just like Newton Learning. Egeling said the program is in its second year and offers full-day programs, expanded from a half-day program offered last year. She said the district opted for full days in order to increase attendance.
Other Missouri districts that offer similar summer programs include Ferguson-Florissant, Hancock Place and Hazelwood.
In Columbia, attendance is optional, and Kupferer thinks participation is beneficial. “If anyone should have the experience, it’s those who have never entered school,” she said. “I think it’s the smartest thing to do.”