ST. LOUIS COUNTY • The kindergartners in Shannon Graham’s classroom on the first day of school could be entirely different from the ones she’ll be teaching a few weeks from now.
During the first several days of the new school year, children will rotate through the four kindergarten classrooms at Oak Brook Elementary School. Along the way, Graham and the other teachers are getting to know the 77 pupils and taking notes.
Who’s getting along? Who’s clashing? Who’s clingy? Which ones are reading, and which have never written their names?
All the information is used to create a balanced mix for each kindergarten classroom at Oak Brook.
“We want them to be diverse classes in every aspect — academics, behavior, race,” said Principal Chris Shirley. For example, a student who is already reading can be a great role model to a child who is struggling to sound out words.
In the past, kindergartners were placed in classrooms somewhat blindly. That approach can be challenging, because the right balance of children who need help in areas of behavior or academics can make or break a school year for teachers and students.
Graham remembers a kindergarten class she had a few years ago with five boys who struggled to get along.
“All year it was bickering and fighting,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t get anything done.”
Two years ago, Oak Brook Elementary began placing students in classrooms based on their needs, identified during observation in the first week of school. The children mix with classmates while participating in activities to help acquaint them with school and each other. Teachers note how well they manage their emotions and resolve conflicts, observe friendships and assess academic skills.
The process also allows children to be placed with a teacher whose strengths best fit their needs.
Three other Parkway elementary schools are taking a similar approach to shaping kindergarten classes. Flynn Park Elementary in the University City School District is doing the same.
Other districts have contacted Oak Brook about starting kindergarten transition programs.
THE RIGHT MIX
Administrators have stressed to parents that the transition process is not being used to place students in academic tiers.
Still, parents may be concerned that their child is not assigned a permanent teacher on the first day of school.
The idea was a bit unsettling to Christine Bonastia when her middle daughter started kindergarten last year. But looking back, she and her husband said the transition period made sense. Their oldest daughter went through kindergarten the old way at Oak Brook — with a permanent teacher on day one. They are glad their daughter Mia, who started kindergarten on Wednesday, will be placed in a class with a teacher who is the best fit for her.
“I feel like she had all of the help she needed,” Bonastia said of last year’s experience.
Teachers say the extra time to transition to elementary school is more valuable in the long run than the short period of uncertainty.
During the second week of school, teachers, counselors, instructional coaches and administrators sit down to create balanced classes, assembling a manageable mix of children with different academic, behavior or social emotional needs.
Meanwhile, the children have an assigned classroom where they start and end each day this week. Teachers say that any students who are having a difficult time transitioning will stay with one teacher. They also place students with anxiety issues immediately, so they begin adjusting to a classroom more quickly.
On Wednesday, Graham moved around her classroom watching some kindergartners as they sat at tables working with cubes and counting objects, while other staffers assessed reading levels of other children.
After just one day, she had picked up on differing needs among the students. “Already, we’ve seen some friends who need some encouragement to join the group,” she said.