Marilyn Payne, kindergarten teacher at Clarksdale Collegiate, asks her students to read the word plastered on the note card during listening and learning time.

CLARKSDALE — It’s a school day in late November, and Marilyn Payne tells her kindergarten students to move to their stations for reading time.

A semicircle of 5-year-olds joins her at a tiny table to read a picture book, “Kit.” But Payne, who teaches at Clarksdale Collegiate Charter School, isn’t reading. Instead, she’s helping students decipher it for themselves.

“Kit can learn,” one student reads before looking over to the next page. “Kit can …”

The student pauses — he’s having trouble reading the next word.
“Do you want to sound it out?” The student nods. “Sk-ip. Skip. Kit can flip and flop.”

“Now, we’re going to stop right there. Tell me some things Kit can do?” she asked her small group.

Activities like this help students develop their reading skills by sounding out words, recognizing letters, and understanding how they blend together.

Mississippi received high praise this fall for the state’s results on a national assessment that measures fourth- and eighth-grade students’ proficiency in reading and math. While the rest of the country stagnated or declined in reading proficiency, Mississippi was the only state to see improvement.

But before those children ever sit down to take that test, they have to master the foundational principles of reading. This process begins in kindergarten for many students, where teachers like Payne work to set students up for success for the rest of their academic lives.

In 2013, the state Legislature passed the Literacy Based Promotion Act with the goal of improving students’ reading skills and ensuring each child is able to read at or above grade level by third grade. With its passage, the law ushered in new requirements that students be tested in kindergarten through third grade as a form of prevention and intervention.

The kindergarten readiness assessment was first administered in 2014. The results from both the fall and spring exams serve as a progress marker to demonstrate how much each child understands and is able to do in school.

In kindergarten, the goal is to score a 530 or higher in the fall, and 681 or higher at the end of the school year. Students who hit the fall goal are classified as “late emergent readers” and should be able to recognize most of the letters of the alphabet and match them with sounds. They can’t read proficiently yet, but can read and understand parts of picture books. In the spring, students who hit the benchmark are “transitional readers,” which means they can identify consonant and vowel sounds and use clues like pictures and story patterns to identify simple words.

The Mississippi Department of Education has these benchmarks in place because research suggests that students who hit these marks are on a trajectory to meet reading expectations in the third grade. This matters because the law created what’s known as the “third-grade gate,” and kids who fail to pass the test are held back.

The Test

The kindergarten exam is a computer assessment that measures 27 skills in early literacy and early numeracy, said Kristin Wells, state literacy director at the department of education. This fall, like every fall to date, the state average hovered just above 500, almost thirty points below the benchmark. Wells is not concerned by this — when asked, she pointed to performance in every year prior, where the state average after the spring assessment always exceeds that 681 benchmark.

“When they come into kindergarten and this is the first time (they’ve) ever been to school, by mid-year they are able to recognize letters and sounds and language and talk,” Wells said. “Their oral language development and vocabulary has grown significantly.”

Since 2014, the department has offered expanded professional development for educators to better understand the importance of early literacy skills.

“We invested in professional development with teachers,” Wells said. “If I have a better prepared teacher, I have a better prepared student.”

The state has trained over 15,000 teachers with a program called LETRS, or Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, Wells said. As the name suggests, it provides teachers with the background and tools necessary to teach language and literacy skills to children.

“We’ve provided hours upon hours of teacher prep,” said Tenette Smith, executive director of elementary education and reading. The LETRS programs “…have helped teachers understand the importance of teaching those components of reading…and they’re better prepared to reach our students. And so then you’ll see better prepared students exiting kindergarten.”

Amanda Johnson, the executive director of Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School, greets students as they prepare for the first day of school Wednesday July, 25, 2018.

At Clarksdale Collegiate, daily phonics and phonemics lessons — phonics are taught with the eyes, whereas phonemics are taught with the ears — have been fruitful for the growth of the students, said Amanda Johnson, executive director of the school.

Though the school is fairly new, the students’ average score was 538 this fall. Johnson said their goal for the spring is to show more growth and outscore the state average and surrounding districts.

“There’s been a lot of conversations about the appropriate way to teach reading and what that looks like,” Johnson said. “When you talk about reading, exclusive phonics and decoding is important and also that language comprehension as well, that together makes the reading.”

To read fluently, one needs a firm handle on all of the skills necessary to comprehend a word.

At Magee Elementary in Simpson County, this year’s kindergarten class averaged a 456 on the fall assessment. Principal Paul Lawrence acknowledges there’s work to be done, but his school has become skilled at growing its students. Last year, the school went from an F rating to a B, which Lawrence attributes to a focus on growing students from where they are, rather than trying to make sure every student scores proficient on state exams. He’s also placed more emphasis on the teachers to understand what their students’ data means. If scores drop, know why, he said.

“Own it. You know why it’s down or you know why it went up,” Lawrence said. “Don’t let it be a surprise to you one way or the other.”

Magee Elementary School teacher Annashi Wyatt works with students as they work on a phonics and phonemic awareness exercise Friday, December 6, 2019.

Assistant principal Dedra Clark-Allen said one of the school’s biggest challenges is shoring up the gaps in skill levels, particularly with concepts like reading comprehension.

“Young children learn by experiences,” she said. “And so it just makes sense that the less experiences that a child has, their dish is just not full and ready. Because we learn based on what we already know.”

Teachers can show children how to recognize letters and sounds, but without background knowledge it can be difficult to understand what a word means.

“We can tell you a story about under the big top, but if you’ve never been to the circus you can’t even imagine. You have no point of reference, no context to put it in,” Clark-Allen said. “One of the biggest challenges that we face is our parents’ ability to expose their children to a variety of activities and settings.”

At Corinth Elementary School, the staff prepares for each incoming kindergarten class months before the school year even begins. When registration opens in the spring, parents bring their children so the school can do a screener to gauge their knowledge and offer pointers to parents on how to prepare their kids.

After registration, there is a day camp for the soon-to-be students to get a feel for their new school. This means walking down the hallways, learning where the bathrooms are and seeing what the classrooms look like. It pays off, Corinth Elementary Principal Brian Knippers said; this year the students showed up at school ready to learn because they were already familiar with it.

“It changed the whole culture of the school this year,” Knippers said. “You can do that before, or you can spend the first week of school trying to get kids what we call ‘ready to learn.’”

A ‘write the room’ exercise at Corinth Elementary School.

The act of learning is creative in these kindergarten classrooms. Kindergarten teacher Deborah Baugus has some students use an ink pad to stamp vowels on a worksheet, while others participate in an activity called “write the room.” Students have a clipboard with rows of gingerbread men numbered one through 10, and each number matches a different photo on the walls of the classroom. For each photo, students need to figure out the number of syllables in the word. When one student found the photo of broccoli on the wall, he colored in three gingerbread men with a green paint pen.

For the child it’s just a fun coloring activity, but for teachers write the room “is the equivalent of an excel spreadsheet,” said Knippers. These types of in class activities are one way teachers can see how much a student understands and what he or she needs help with. Classwork and testing data combined create a full picture for staff to see where their students are.

Mary Carter, a teacher in the Leland school gets her pre-K student to recite months of the year as she points to them.

At Leland School Park, establishing a positive school culture and high levels of parental engagement matters, says Linda McAdory, administrator for early learning. The Leland school had the one of the highest fall scores in the state with an average of 583.

McAdory attributed one reason for the high score: parental engagement.

Staff make an effort to talk to parents during drop-off and pick-up time, she said. Teachers send home weekly newsletters and parent activity worksheets, which include words and letters students learn in class.

“We give (resources) to the parents so they can work with the children. That’s why our children excel because of the parents and the parental involvement piece that we have in place in the Leland School District.”

In West Jackson, students at Ambition Prep Charter School scored a few points above the state average on the fall assessment at 507. The school opened in August with 73 kindergarteners and 64 first-graders, and staff hit the ground running.

Students practice sounding out words at Ambition Prep Charter School on Dec. 4, 2019.

Each kindergarten classroom is named after a college, most often one the teacher attended. In the Louisiana State University classroom on a recent December morning, students were gathered on a colorful rug. A teacher asked the students how to read the words on the page he was holding up, to which they responded with a chant “top to bottom!”

The students practiced sounding out words, dragging out the sound of each letter.

They repeated this a few times until they could read what all those sounds add up to — “fat.”

The school day is intentionally longer than that of a traditional public school, because “we needed more time in literacy,” DeArchie Scott, the school’s founder said.

At Ambition Prep, the kindergarten class is comprised of students with a variety of experiences. Some were enrolled in Head Start or preschool programs while some are coming straight from their homes to the classroom for the first time. There are also some “repeaters” — these are children who went to kindergarten last year at a different school.

“In kindergarten you can have some that don’t recognize their letters, to some that are almost reading,” said Kayla Applewhite, dean of curriculum and instruction. “There’s just such a wide variety coming in at the beginning of the year.”

A teaching assistant works with kindergarten students at Ambition Prep on Dec. 4, 2019.

Applewhite and her staff use an array of assessments to see exactly how the students are doing and where gaps exist. Teachers can see specific details about each class and child, such as what letters or sounds students are having trouble recognizing. With this data, students are broken up into groups based on ability levels. This allows students to work on individualized skills, she said.

“One group might be working on the repeated pattern in a book, or just reading from left to right. And then a higher group is actually working on word solving right now. Looking at the picture and the initial sound to figure out a word because they’re actually almost reading,” Applewhite said. “That individualized instruction is actually able to happen in those small group moments, and then the teacher gets to check in with each one of her scholars.”

Although each school Mississippi Today visited had its own way of teaching students, similarities existed throughout. From the multicolor rugs students sit on, letters of the alphabet displayed on the wall or the interactive learning stations across the room, everything has a purpose. Teachers understand that children this young have short attention spans and learn better using their whole body, so the classrooms need to be developmentally appropriate. Desks and a lecture setting will come later, but for now school is a sort of “structured play,” said Smith, of the state department of education.

“Every piece is intentional,” said Jill Dent, bureau director of early childhood at the Mississippi Department of Education.

“Kindergarten teachers are very crafty about how they implement those (early learning) standards into those learning centers and what they want them to learn in their centers through that specific play,” Dent said. “(Students) don’t realize that they’re learning while they’re doing this because it’s just fun.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.