Fourteen first-graders recently sat on a rug in their classroom at Longmont’s Northridge Elementary School while teacher Michelle Flippin led them through pronouncing a series of nonsense words.
“You are putting together everything you’ve been learning,” she said before they read out loud words that included “tipdexes,” “blosses” and “drinches.” “These are super weird words but, if you know all the sounds, can you read them? Of course you can.”
The students, most of whom were in her class during the school year, are getting an extra four weeks of school through St. Vrain Valley School District’s “Project Launch.”
“The end of first grade is when they really start reading and comprehending,” Flippin said. “You can keep that flow going.”
Project Launch is operating at 16 school sites this month, extending the school year by four weeks for about 3,000 elementary students and about 900 middle school students. About a quarter of the district’s elementary students are enrolled in the program.
“The notion that school ends when May ends is just not the way it is any more,” said Superintendent Don Haddad.
St. Vrain piloted Project Launch in 2019, then skipped a year in 2020 because of the pandemic. While the summer program originally was limited to students who were below grade level in literacy, it was opened to all students last summer and this summer in recognition of the gaps in learning caused by pandemic disruptions to school.
“It’s an investment our district makes,” said Diane Lauer, assistant superintendent of priority programs.
Students are attending a full day of school, four days a week. There’s no cost to families, and breakfast, lunch and transportation are provided.
Project Launch is funded through three main sources: federal coronavirus relief money, Colorado’s READ Act money, and a $2.8 million two-year state grant that St. Vrain Valley received along with four other school districts through the state’s RISE — Response, Innovation and Student Equity — Fund.
The district was awarded a $2.8 million, two-year state grant to collaborate with five smaller districts around the state on its K-5 summer literacy program. The award is part of the second round of grants from Colorado’s Response, Innovation and Student Equity Fund, which is funded through federal coronavirus relief money.
Other grants, from Mile High United Way and The Weld Trust, are covering the cost of a preschool program that started last summer. Four school sites, with students attending from seven schools, offer a full-day option for preschoolers who will enter kindergarten in the fall.
One school, Erie’s Highlands Elementary, is piloting a modified version of the summer program for students displaying dyslexic characteristics from Highlands and four other Erie elementary schools. And for incoming sixth-graders, there’s an accelerated math option.
The Project Launch curriculum focuses on math and literacy, with teachers incorporating science and social studies concepts that students will learn in the fall into their lessons. With a full-day program, students also have a daily elective.
To prepare for the program, the district used a short assessment in May to evaluate students’ reading and math levels. That data, plus curriculum and materials, was provided to the teachers, who had four days to plan instruction. Each school site has a literacy teacher and special education teacher to support the classroom teachers.
The Boulder Valley School District also is offering a summer program with a literacy and math focus at no cost to families, with free meals and transportation. The six-week summer program, which started Monday, runs half-days, four days a week. About 1,300 incoming kindergartners through ninth-graders are enrolled at 11 school sites.
The program includes small group instruction in reading and math, online independent practice, STEM activities, and social and emotional skill lessons. Students below grade level in math or literacy were invited to attend.
New this summer, through a partnership with Impact on Education, is a program for about 160 rising kindergarten students held at three sites: two in Boulder and one in Lafayette.
“We are thrilled that so many students in our community will be more ready for kindergarten than they would have been without this opportunity,” said Boulder Valley Assistant Superintendent Robbyn Fernandez.
In St. Vrain Valley, Longmont’s Northridge Elementary is one of the sites for rising kindergartners. On a recent day, a teacher helped two students write letters, while the rest colored planets or built a rainbow with blocks with help from two paraeducators.
“They can have that extra preparation for kindergarten,” Principal DeAnn Dykes said. “We do a lot of work on social emotional learning, on how to follow the group, get along with each other and solve problems.”
She said the summer program’s smaller class sizes, with extra support from the literacy teacher, special education teacher and paraeducators, allows teachers to really target the areas where students need more help. All but two of the teachers in the summer program also are from Northridge, so most students start out familiar with teachers. A counselor works with small groups and, for the preschool class, provides whole class lessons.
At Northridge, about 75% of students speak English as a second language, while about the same percentage qualify for federally subsidized lunches. This summer, 142 students — or about 45% of the school’s total enrollment — are attending Project Launch.
“They start the school year just that much more confident,” Dykes said.
On a recent day, Flippin, the first-grade teacher, worked with three students in a small group who started the school year with her as “newcomers,” speaking only Spanish.
She asked them to find individual words in a reading passage about pets — pointing to “dog,” “fish,” “little,” “cat” and “crab” — before reading the story together. She also asked them to tell her the Spanish word for crab and asked if they had ever had a crab as a pet.
“It’s really cool to see how far they’ve come,” she said about her students. “For our newcomers especially, they get so much exposure to language when they’re here.”
Especially after the disruptions of the pandemic, she said, students also are benefiting from more time with the routines and expectations of school.
“These kiddos didn’t have a lot of in-person time in kindergarten,” she said. “They’re missing some first-grade level skills. These extra four weeks are really helpful.”
Over in Erie, the Highlands Elementary’s program also includes students from Red Hawk for a total enrollment of 125 students. Most of the teachers are from those two schools, giving most students “a face they recognize.”
Elise Volpi is 16 teaching incoming first-graders in Project Launch who may end up in her first-grade class at Highlands in the fall, giving her a head start on getting to know her students.
“I can see their confidence grow,” she said. “They’re becoming more confident readers. I want to get them as close as I can to the grade level reading benchmark.”
As at Northridge, paraeducators, a literacy teacher and a special education teacher work with small groups of students, reducing overall class sizes during literacy instruction. There’s also recess, movement breaks, themed Thursdays and a more relaxed feel than during the school year.
In a first-grade classroom, 18 students practiced a math counting strategy, counting up from the first number in math addition equations with the help of pictures. Next, they played a dice game to write their own equations.
“Remember, math isn’t a race,” cautioned teacher Nicole Neitenbach as the students worked. “If we go too fast, we might make silly mistakes.”
Neitenbach, who has taught first grade at Red Hawk for four years and will move to third grade in the fall, said she’s focusing on improving students’ math fact fluency.
“If they have really strong math fact fluency, more difficult math problems aren’t as hard,” she said. “It’s really solidifying the skills they learned over the school year.”
For the dyslexia base camp pilot, 22 students spend the morning together for small group instruction in literacy and community building activities. They also work with two high school mentors, who can share their own experiences with dyslexia. In the afternoon, they participate in the regular Project Launch classrooms.
“We want to help kids get ready for the next school year,” said Laura Fitzgerald, the Highlands Elementary site coordinator.
Boulder Daily Camera
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