Liz Bell Skip to content

When children come to the first day of kindergarten, they come with a variety of needs, personalities, abilities, and backgrounds. The most important thing in those first few weeks is building a routine, said Annette Kent, a kindergarten teacher at Coker-Wimberly Elementary School in Edgecombe County. 

“Routines are very important in kindergarten and building that stamina that they need when we start the reading process,” Kent said. “I really need them to be focusing and being on task the entire time and not losing any of their instructional time. So we’re trying to drill that importance of just being able to stay on that one task and keep that one task.”

The routine leads to more time to dive into academics.

“Kids now are expected to be able to read, write, answer comprehension questions, [in] their mathematics, they’re solving problems. I think people still think kindergarten is just counting, and it’s not,” said Coker-Wimberly Principal Katelin Row. “They’re doing addition, they’re doing subtraction, they’re doing almost everything. They’re doing foundations in geometry and working with 3-D shapes. Six year olds are doing 3-D shapes right now, and that’s not what kindergarten was 20 years ago, 30 years ago.”

A sign in Annette Kent’s kindergarten classroom. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Row is a graduate of N.C. State University’s Northeast Leadership Academy, a highly-respected accelerated principal preparation program. Row is one of a handful of young leaders from the program within Edgecombe County Public Schools. She is constantly focused on “what’s best for kids,” even if that means doing things differently or challenging the status quo. Row explained her student-focused discipline approach. She said she often asks teachers during referrals: “Do you want the child punished or do you want the issue resolved?” She works to emphasize healing relationships and understanding where students are coming from. 

Back in August, Coker-Wimberly students came to class a couple weeks before the normal start of the year because of flexibility they have been granted from the state. The elementary school, which serves about 280 students, has been designated a “restart school,” which means the school’s administration has more control over scheduling, staffing, and structuring the school experience. Schools must be low-performing for two of the last three years to receive the restart status. Low-performing means the school received a D or F in the state’s school grading system and met or did not exceed the state’s growth standards.

During the 2017-18 school year, Coker-Wimberly received an F. Those grades are comprised of 80 percent performance on end-of-grade tests and 20 percent student growth. One of the biggest complaints with this grading scale is that students come to school at different starting points depending on a number of socioeconomic factors. In 2017-18, over 76 percent of students at Coker-Wimberly were living in poverty. 

For kindergarteners, starting points depend heavily on if the child had any prior educational experience, like daycare or pre-K. At the start of this school year, Coker-Wimberly kindergarten teacher Taylor McNab said she can immediately tell whether or not students were in a high-quality program beforehand.

“We had one little boy yesterday who we asked him to write his name and it was just like scribbles,” McNab said. “The ones who go to pre-K, they know how to walk in a line, they know how to write their name, they can recognize most letters and most numbers, but still not all. And then, the ones who don’t go to pre-K come in really knowing nothing.”

Tori Whitaker, a Coker-Wimberly kindergarten student, places cards with different behaviors on the board in “good choices” or “bad choices” categories. Liz Bell/EducationNC

McNab said she hopes for a system where every student can get an earlier start to be on the same page when entering kindergarten. Without that, she said it is a large challenge to meet end-of-year standards for some students.

“That’s how I wish it was because some of the kids that come in, like there’s no way — well there is a way — you work your butt off to get them where they need to be, but sometimes it still doesn’t get them where they need to be,” she said. “You spend all year working with them in small groups, flash cards, sending stuff home, and then at the end of the year, they still can’t read on their level.”

The school’s restart status has allowed for some changes in the way the staff is structured. Coker-Wimberly is in its second year of implementing a program called opportunity culture, which creates roles for highly-effective teachers that pay more and allow them to reach more students. In the kindergarten classes at Coker-Wimberly, there are subject-specific multi-classroom leaders (MCLs) who come into the classroom, coach teachers, and help give more individualized instruction to students. 

McNab said she appreciates the coaching that her K-2 math MCL gives her. At the same time that staff was rearranged, three kindergarten classes went to two. In the 2017-18 school year, McNab and Kent said bigger class sizes were a struggle. Kent said she had 25 students in a class with one high-needs autistic child. 

“That was like having 40 kids in the classroom,” Kent said. At the start of the year, she had a few less students and said no students had serious developmental delays. She said whether a class is manageable depends on the number of students, but also the needs of those students and whether or not another adult is in the classroom to help. 

Especially when students come in below grade level, McNab said, one-on-one support is hard to offer without an assistant. 

“With smaller class sizes, you can grow kids more,” she said. “Because you get to spend more of that one-on-one time with them. That to me, that’s the biggest challenge.” 

The two kindergarten teachers are specialized in their subjects, which is not the norm for early grades. There are two classes, math taught by McNab and reading taught by Kent, and the students switch between the two. McNab and Kent said classroom management during that transition was an original concern, though they now feel like they have things under control and enjoy being able to focus in on their areas of expertise.

Kindergarteners not only showed up early in August at Coker-Wimberly, but they came in small groups over three days. Setting up the routine Kent mentioned is the main idea behind staggered enrollment. It allows students time to gradually feel comfortable in a new space with new people, and allows teachers to begin developing personal relationships with students.

McNab pointed to voice levels on the walls and had students differentiate between good and bad decisions for classroom behavior. Coker-Wimberly uses “no-nonsense nurturing,” a classroom management approach that starts with clear instructions and recognizes students who are following those instructions. 

Kent said eventually, kindergarteners catch on and become engaged in creating an environment with high expectations.

“It’s all about finding the positive and focusing on the positive,” she said. “So when I say, ‘Tori is walking around the room with a level 1 voice, I’m reiterating the direction she’s been given and that she’s following it to the T. After a while, the children will be… ‘scribing.’ All I will have to do is just call a child, ‘Scribe for me,’ and they’ll walk around the room, ‘Victoria’s doing what you’re supposed to do, she’s on level zero,’ or, ‘She’s walking on the third block on level zero voice.’ They’ll be able to do that instead of me doing that. That’s our goal as a school, to get the children to do that. So I’ve been starting that day one.”

Kent said her goal by mid-year is to have each child reading, no matter what level. Seeing students grow, a lot of times from knowing nothing to reading beyond grade-level, is what motivates her. She shoots for above grade-level by the end of the year. 

It’s fun because, when I have children that come in and don’t even know how to write their name, and by the end of the year, they are a letter above grade level,” Kent said. “I had several children last year, they couldn’t write their own name but by the end of the year — you’re supposed to be on a D to leave kindergarten — they were on E, F. I even had an H.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.