Starpoint School District officials started key programs last year that may ensure that almost every pupil in the district will be reading at grade level by third grade.
One program, a prekindergarten evaluation program called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, orally tests incoming pupils to see if they have the basic skills needed to handle the subject matter in kindergarten.
A second program, Speech Squad, involves two teams of two speech teachers who visit all kindergarten classrooms for 30 minutes each day and work with pupils in small groups on game-like activities to help them develop 35 crucial language skills.
After just one year, the programs are showing better results than expected.
Sean M. Croft, district director of instruction, assessment and staff development, said last year's prekindergarten DIBELS assessments showed only 54 percent of the district's incoming kindergarten pupils had the background needed to take on the academic demands of kindergarten. But as of last month, he said, 94 percent of those same pupils -- now in first grade -- are performing at grade level.
"The program is really working," Croft said. "It's bringing these kids up to grade level. It actually surprised me because the percentage rose so high. We were just shooting for 80 percent when we started."
The assessment results are pleasing because they tell educators that general classroom instruction and remedial programs are focused on the right things.
Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan said he hopes the programs help the district reach its goal of having most children reading at grade level by third grade.
"If a child is a poor reader at the end of first grade," Croft said, "research shows there are nine chances in 10 that he'll remain a poor reader at the end of fourth grade."
Jillian Allessi, a Speech Squad member, said her group works with kindergarten teachers on the development of pupil listening, comprehension, speaking and memory skills, as well as literacy skills important in all subject areas.
Speech teacher Julie Morrison said approaches include "rhyming" and a game called "Say it and Move It." In that game, children break a word down into its component sounds, then put it back together. In this way, they're learning the building blocks of language long before they start looking at things like phonics and the written word, which they will get to before the end of the school year.
Morrison said the kindergarten teachers do a wonderful job helping to make the program work.
The Speech Squad program gets a passing grade from this year's kindergarten pupils.
"I like to play the games like matching the letters," said Makenzie Weber, 5, noting that her favorite letter -- so far -- is "M."
Croft said the programs do not end with kindergarten. First-graders get a refresher course when they return to school along with intense one-on-one help if they are still struggling. Second-graders also get one-on-one help if they still need it.