In Taylor Johnson’s classroom, she proudly displays her class motto: “Accepted. Respected. Valued. Loved.”
“Those are my four core beliefs,” she said. “I believe that part of what’s so important about early learning is creating relationships where they feel positive and they feel valued in the classroom, and they see the value of school.”
Johnson teaches full-day pre-kindergarten at Whitman Elementary School, one of 34 elementary schools within Spokane Public Schools. Her class, like others across the state, includes a blend of children participating in Transitional Kindergarten (TK) and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP).
Karin Thompson, Director of Early Learning for Spokane Public Schools, said this blended model is necessary for meeting the demand for pre-kindergarten programs. She estimated that up to twice as many children would participate in their preschool programs if there was space available.
“We know that we’ve really only reached about half of where the need is at this point, which is why we can’t do it by ourselves,” Thompson said. “Even if we get a preschool in every single building in our district, we still need our community partners.”
Both TK and ECEAP are high-quality early learning programs that are provided at no cost to families. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) oversees TK programs, which serve children aged 5 and about to turn 5 who need additional preparation to be successful in kindergarten. (Learn more about TK and how it works.) Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) oversees ECEAP, which provides childcare and preschool services. There are age eligibility requirements for both programs, and ECEAP also determines eligibility based on family income.
In blended classrooms like Johnson’s, the classroom experience is the same for all children. Over the course of the school day, students eat family-style meals together in the classroom, participate in play-based learning, spend time outdoors, rest during quiet time, and meet with specialists like art and science teachers once a week.
This approach to teaching in an early childhood setting helps build the foundation for children’s perceptions of school.
“The play-based nature is so incredibly fun, and it makes kids love learning,” Johnson said. “It creates this passion and this drive for kids to feel confident in class. Getting to see them enjoy learning and have a great relationship with school from the get-go is a really lovely feeling.”
Throughout their pre-kindergarten experience, children also learn pre-academic skills like how to hold a pencil, how to cut with scissors, and how to cooperate with their peers.
Thompson includes early literacy in the pre-kindergarten curriculum, bringing her experience as the elementary literacy coordinator for Spokane Public Schools. Students in blended TK and ECEAP classrooms focus on oral language and will build on those literacy skills as they progress through elementary school.
“The sound is so critical to the foundation,” Thompson said. “We value the importance of number sense in math, like really understanding what a number is. … Foundational literacy skills [are] the word sense or the letter sense, the language sense that our students need that everything else is built on.”
The focus on early literacy skills is proving effective. According to data recently released by OSPI, kindergarten students who participated in TK were 13% more likely to meet the kindergarten readiness standard in literacy this fall, as compared to their peers who did not participate in TK. The gains are even more pronounced for students with disabilities, students identified as low-income, and students who are multilingual/English learners.
Johnson approximated that there are four different home languages represented in her pre-kindergarten classroom. Those students have built a community amongst themselves, she added, and will help translate for each other.
“How close they’ve become in supporting each other in what their needs are has been pretty wonderful,” Johnson said.
Along with positive outcomes in the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WaKIDS) process — the state’s kindergarten readiness assessment process — Thompson has observed that Spokane Public Schools’ blended pre-kindergarten program is helping students become leaders once they enter their kindergarten classrooms.
“We are seeing such positive impacts [for] our kiddos as they move into kindergarten,” Thompson said. “Several of the principals this year are coming to me saying, Give me more.”
“This has been such a game-changer for kindergarten,” Thompson continued. “We have kids that know our building, know our routines, know our expectations. They’re now leaders in the kindergarten classrooms. We’re serving our highest need kids and … because we’re giving them this extra year of support in the building, they then become leaders in kindergarten where, honestly, they would have been behind.”
Johnson emphasized the importance of accessing early learning, especially for children who need additional supports.
“The work that we do in early childhood is truly the most important foundation you can lay for any learner,” Johnson said.
This story was written by Chelsea Embree, Communications Strategist at OSPI. You can contact the Communications Team at email@example.com.