This is a guest post from Nicholas Midler.
Stories about struggling school districts in America frequently crop up in news cycles, but the U.S. Virgin Islands paints a picture of what these schools are actually in danger of sliding into. Located two and a half hours by plane from Miami, the Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory. The Islands’ warm climate and tropical beaches make them a popular tourist destination, but venture inland from the tourist attractions and you’ll find a far less rosy picture in the Islands’ schools. To help reverse the educational trends on the island, I started The Family Connection Kindercamp, a six-week nonprofit summer camp for students entering or repeating kindergarten on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
When I first started The Family Connection Kindercamp one statistic stuck squarely in my mind as a motivator. When Virgin Island students were assessed upon entering Kindergarten, 53% tested as below proficient in language skills. It is easy to hold such statistics in abstract, but their devastating effects are reflected in the Islands’ crumbling economic outlook. The unemployment rate clocks in at 11.7%, and 68% of children below the age of four receive Federal food aid. Even more troubling, the results from a recent series of standardized tests correlated to the new Common Core standards revealed that 83% of VI schoolchildren from the third to eleventh grade failed to meet expectations for English and 93% failed math.
It was the goal of the six-week camp to turn these statistics around and set its students on a path of higher academic achievement. I wanted the roughly 80 kids enrolled annually in the camp to avoid being a part of the dismal education statistics on the island, such as 47% of VI youths aged 18 to 19 who don’t have a high-school diploma. The camp intervenes before kids enter kindergarten to give them a strong foundation for future academic success.
The issue of how best to prepare incoming students for kindergarten is a topic that has proved itself worthy of lengthy debates. The topic is especially pressing for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. According to a study from the University of Kansas, kids from lower income areas have heard 30 million fewer words by the age of four. Intervening early in a student’s academic life offers a way to head off this vicious cycle of declining performance, but turning around test results is a delicate game. State and Federal budgets are strained enough without having to pay for pre-K, and my experience at The Family Connection Kindercamp has taught me that it often takes a group effort from the community to ensure success.
Parents are a particularly vital part of this community. From birth to age five, the human brain undergoes 90% of its development. In these crucial first years parents define the bulk of their child’s experiences. Even after school enrollment, parents continue to exert great influence over their child’s development. It is not without reason that researchers call parents a child’s first and most important teacher. The Family Connection Kindercamp drew on this influence by continually keeping its door open for parents who wanted to volunteer at the camp. Not only is the volunteer parent a boon to the camp, which benefits from the extra supervision, but the camp is a veritable idea factory for the helpful parent. The activities, games, and teacher-student interaction all demonstrate ways for the involved parent to engage with their child at home. There is no better way to learn than by doing, and volunteering at the camp provides parents with a first-hand look at the teaching techniques and expectations of school.
The learning that does take place in a classroom is rapidly shifting in manner. Play is being reevaluated from an odious necessity used to placate puerile attention spans to the teacher’s best friend. Fun activities and games that engage a young student’s attention are now thought to be an effective teaching method. Instead of tracing the letter “A” fifty times in a textbook, the alphabet is now being taught with glue, construction paper, and glitter. Coupled with Socratic style questions that encourage the child to consider or think deeply about the activity, this play through learning technique outpaces more traditional teaching methods by far.
The Family Connection Kindercamp adapted this new technique by breaking the classroom down into several activity stations. Students can rotate between different activities, each of which exercises different skill sets. The different stations not only increases engagement by making learning fun, but the jostling and communication between groups encourages good behavior and serves as an informal introduction to the classroom setting.
To keep the independence thrust upon the kids by the child-led curriculum from descending into chaos, behavioral routines had to be established. Expectations were set, and kids soon learned how to work constructively in the classroom. An independent review authored by Elizabeth Jaegar, an early childcare Ph.D., catalogued the curriculum’s role in the success of the program. The report notes that “during the last week of the program, the classrooms appeared to be ‘well-oiled machines’ where children moved smoothly from a large group activity to choice time at various learning stations throughout the room.” The report even describes “one child [who] even cried and pleaded with his mother to stay longer,” demonstrating that the children find the open-ended syllabus to be fun and engaging.
All of these techniques would have been useless if adequate funding for the camp couldn’t be raised. Hosting a pre-kindergarten summer program is no small effort, and the federally mandated teacher to student ratio of around 10-1 ensures that these programs lack neither cost nor quality. The federal Headstart program, which provides high quality pre-K to economically disadvantaged children, is a case in point. In 2014, Headstart spent just under 8.6 billion dollars for just under one million kids.
The Family Connection Kindercamp, though nowhere near the same size, is able to provide a week of high quality early-childhood education for $95 per child through a public-private partnership model. The program benefits from funds and in-kind gifts furnished by both the government and private donors. Classes take place in rent-free public school classrooms that were already stocked with useful resources. Accredited public school teachers who have years of experience and a college degree under their belt, teach the program.
The public-private partnership is in many ways a metaphor for the cooperation needed for early-childhood education to succeed. The benefits of initiating high quality pre-K are fairly straightforward. It remedies learning gaps before they blossom into dismal test scores and drop out statistics, and it has the potential to establish a level playing field for all American children. Winning this meritocracy is no simple matter but it can start with you. If just a fraction of the money spent by tourists on the U.S. Virgin Islands went towards supporting the public-private model, the dismal statistics that inspired me to make a change in early childhood education could be reversed.