By Jef Rietsma
Educators in Vicksburg and Schoolcraft said the state-sponsored Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) is yielding results in their districts that Michigan’s officials envisioned when the program started in the 1990s.
Between GSRP, Head Start, Young 5’s, and before- and after-school programs, a valuable amount of assistance is available locally for young learners.
A good example can be found in Vicksburg Community Schools, where Tonya Nash, community education director, said students considered at-risk because of variables ranging from low-income to homelessness have never had a better chance to become “school-ready.”
“‘School-ready’ is a term we use often and it really captures the essence of what GSRP and other programs strive to accomplish for the youngest of students,” Nash said.
The Michigan GSRP is a state-funded program administered by each county’s intermediate school district. In Kalamazoo County, its ISD is the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency.
Like Head Start, its participants qualify based on low income and other factors. Though a formula for qualification is in place, children from a household with an income 200 percent below poverty level qualify automatically.
Nash and Amie Goldschmeding, early childhood coordinator for Schoolcraft Community Schools, said numerous studies have concluded children from a low-income household are more likely to start kindergarten at a social and academic disadvantage than children from a more-affluent home.
That on its own substantiates the value of early-childhood programs offered before children start kindergarten, Nash said. GSRP, she added, is meeting that need to ensure children considered a-risk are, indeed, school-ready.
“The expectations in kindergarten today are much greater than they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s. For example,” Nash said, “kids need to know colors, numbers, letters sounds, how to hold a pencil, how to use scissors, so many other things, and they are getting that experience in GSRP and other before-kindergarten programs.”
GSRP is open to children who are 4 years old before Oct. 1, while students in Head Start can begin that program as early as 3years. Like GSRP, Head Start is available to students who qualify based on a household income level, but at a level even lower than the 4-year-old children who qualify for GSRP.
In Vicksburg, GSRP classes will be at each of its three elementary schools in 2014-15. Class sizes are 16 students per building. Its Head Start is housed at Indian Lake School, where Alyssa Thompson is the district’s lead teacher for GSRP.
Nash said she is excited to see one class in each building, as funding cuts had previously limited Vicksburg’s GSRP classes to one 16-student room at Indian Lake. The state, however, has upped its funding and districts such as Vicksburg are taking advantage of that by increasing its staffing needs for three classes.
Each GSRP room has a lead teacher and a specially trained associate teacher. GSRP classes can have up to 18 students but at that number of pupils, a third adult is required to serve in the capacity of classroom aide.
Nash said students in GSRP are expected to start kindergarten the following year rather than so-called Young 5s of pre-kindergarten classes. Nash said in Vicksburg, most students in the Beginner Kindergarten are 4 years old on the first day of school but turn 5 years in the fall or late in the calendar year.
BK is not income-dependent. Rather, it’s simply a structured environment that benefits children whose late-in-the-year birthday gives them social and academic options to better prepare them for kindergarten, Nash said.
Goldschmeding said Schoolcraft is starting its second year of GSRP. For comparison’s sake, Vicksburg has had the program in place 13 years.
Like Vicksburg, the program is growing in Schoolcraft.
“We started GSRP last year in one classroom and with an enrollment of 24 this year, we are expanding to two classrooms,” Goldschmeding said, clarifying that there is a tuition formula in place if prospective students don’t fully qualify based on household income level.
KRESA administers to its school districts about $6,800 per GSRP student.
Goldschmeding said Schoolcraft bought 20 new iPads through a grant last year, and the devices will be introduced to this year’s GSRP students. Technology, she said, is an integral part of education in the 21st century.
“There are some effective lessons that can be taught from iPads, including letter formation, number formation, sounds,” she said. “We’re really excited to add that component to our GSRP curriculum.”
GSRP students won’t start classes until Sept. 22 and their school year will conclude in early May. A state-required component of GSRP calls for teacher-parent visits at the student’s place of residence, which attributes to the late start and early conclusion of its school year. Parents, meanwhile, also must commit to attending at least two in-school conferences per academic year.
Goldschmeding said despite GSRP in place just one year, it is already yielding dividends. She said six of the top 10 screenings for incoming kindergartners were scored by students in the 2013-14 GSRP class.
“That was pretty exciting to see,” she said. “We knew the need for GSRP was out there – Schoolcraft was the last district in the county to implement GSRP – but we just didn’t know how much.”
The state requires continued tracking of GSRP students as they advance through elementary, middle and into high school as a way to gauge their academic standing.