by SARAH SQUIRES
W-K kindergarten teacher Lisa Kulzer is seated on a rainbow-colored mat, four students gathered around her. Each pulls out a glossy book and cracks the cover. "Look at the Ants Go Home," they read, carefully following each letter and word with a pointer made from a popsicle stick and cutout cartoon figure.
Across the room, another handful of students works on reading using an iPad program with volunteer Maria Ozbun — when they spell out a word, the program rewards them by making the sound of the noun. Another group of four is huddled around a reading educational assistant (EA), selecting their favorite-colored crayons to work on writing in their workbooks.
This focus on small group literacy in kindergarten looks a bit differently than other district classrooms, thanks to a grant from the Winona Community Foundation that places an extra reading EA in W-K's kindergarten classrooms. It means that the guided reading time in class can be broken into smaller groups — but the grant program also means much more to the school's youngest learners.
Having 24 five-year-old students in a class can make for a challenging transition at the beginning of the year, when time in the classroom must first focus on social and emotional learning — the rules and rituals of school. Kulzer said having that extra EA throughout the day means students are able to devote more time to learning, as well as settling in as new students sooner. "It's been so beneficial to have another set of hands the kids know and trust," she said of the program. If a student needs help in the bathroom, or help tying their shoes, it means the rest of the kids can keep learning while their other teacher comes to the rescue. The anxiety of leaving mom and dad and embarking on their first educational journey is eased more quickly, and when they go out to lunch or recess, there's always someone they know and trust nearby. "I think they have a lot of comfort in having two trusted adults at all times," she added.
Kulzer's classroom is connected to the next room through a play area where students can take a break during the day. But, Kulzer and her cohorts have snuck some learning into each area; a sensory sand box is peppered with colorful cut-out letters and words that kids then practice writing on a white board. Kulzer said that having the EA throughout the day doesn't just mean extra help with the guided reading time and shoe-tying. The EAs are able to work one-on-one with struggling students; they sometimes meet in pairs or smaller groups to go over different skills. And, because they are there all day, the EAs have time to work with all the kids — not just the ones who may be struggling with a certain area. "We're taking these kids where they they are, and taking them further," Kulzer explained. Because of the program, meaningful guided reading can start sooner in the year, and they have been able to gather meaningful data on the ways the foundation grant program has made a difference already.
"We're hoping that that model can be supported and replicated throughout the schools," W-K Principal Dawn Lueck said of the program. "I cannot say how excited and how fortunate we feel to have it."
"I've been teaching a long time, and I just really think every classroom could use another adult to help focus on their needs," Kulzer added.
On Wednesday, as most of her students trotted out to lunch and recess with their trusted EA, two straggled behind, struggling with their boots and winter gear. Lueck knelt down next to one boy who said his boots felt "funny." She adjusted his sock, pulled his snowpants down over his leg. A little girl ran over and embraced her teacher, Kulzer hugged back with her free arm. "I love you," the girl whispered. "I love you, too," responded Kulzer.