The class of squirmy but eager and focused kindergartners took their seats behind their screens in their homes to begin Zoom class. They immediately started greeting each other and chatting about what they just ate.
“Guess what I had. Strawberries, a fruit cup and my most favorite: waffles,” said Vanessa Parker, age 5.
Their teacher, Meredith Eger, let the kids talk about their meals for a minute. When she was ready to start class, she smiled widely at the faces on the screen and said, ”Hello, friends. Make sure you have your paper and pencils ready.”
Eger had a full class planned that included lessons on sight words, days of the week, drawing, counting, reading, writing and physical exercises. She had to move swiftly in order to cover all the activities, and so her young pupils would not lose interest.
It was 6 p.m. and the class would last until 8 p.m. for the children in KIPP New Jersey’s Evening Learning Program.
This is night kindergarten school, an optional and free offering the public charter school network created to meet the needs of working families with kindergarten and 1st-grade students who struggled to monitor their children in virtual classes during the regular school day. KIPP NJ, which has schools in Newark and Camden, is part of the national Knowledge Is Power Program non-profit network of college preparatory, public charter schools educating elementary, middle and high school students. More than 90% of KIPP NJ students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The evening program serves 13 kindergartners and three 1st-graders from four KIPP Newark elementary schools, and there’s room for more students, said Rebecca Fletcher, director of operations for the Evening Learning Program and director of school operations for KIPP NJ's Seek Academy. The students attend the evening classes with three teachers Monday to Friday on the same calendar as the rest of the school system, which is in virtual learning mode.
While teaching 5- and 6-year-olds on screen in the evening is not ideal, the night classes, which began in October, are the best alternative to keep some young students who had low rates of attendance in the daytime program engaged in learning this school year, said KIPP NJ educators.
In addition to KIPP NJ, school systems across the country are looking for solutions for early childhood education participation and enrollment as they experience noticeable enrollment and attendance dips as a result of the pandemic. Preschool and kindergarten participation exposes children to formal school settings and can prepare children academically and socially for elementary school.
“The Evening Learning Program is basically a response to really serving our families to figure out what they need,” said Keneshia Clifford, a principal in residence and assistant principal of KIPP NJ's Upper Roseville Academy. “We are proactively reaching out to our families when it comes to attendance because we know attendance equates to learning loss when kids aren’t present at school.”
Meeting the needs of students and families
Rachel Hodge, Vanessa’s mother, works as a hospital housekeeper and has a second job supporting people with disabilities. She is also a college student studying for a bachelor’s in social work. Hodge told school officials earlier this fall that Vanessa may have several absences because it would be difficult for the girl to participate in online school during the day at her babysitter’s home due to distractions from other children. Vanessa’s daytime teacher recommended her for the Evening Learning Program.
“It was so convenient,” said Hodge, who had worried that Vanessa would miss social and academic exposure this school year. Now, her daughter is progressing in reading and thriving socially, she said.
“She does seem like she's really enjoying it, and they've sort of formed like a really big bond, the teachers and the students. The kids have said this is the ‘cool kids club,’” Hodge said.
Al-Khalif Lovelace, age 5, also struggled engaging in the daytime online classes earlier this fall while at his daycare. Since participating in the Evening Learning Program, Al-Khalif has learned more sight words and can count to almost 20, said his mother, Jamia French-Lovelace. He has benefited especially from the small class size and more individualized attention from teachers, she said.
“He loves it and he’s on track. I’m very much so appreciative of that,” French-Lovelace said.
KIPP NJ's Evening Learning Program educators said their students are making academic progress as shown by baseline assessments given when the program began and follow-up assessments. Fletcher also said there have been fewer than five student absences total since the program began.
Eger, who is a teacher in residence for KIPP NJ's Upper Roseville Academy and who is in her first year as a full-time teacher, works alongside two other teachers in the evening program: Lily Ventrell, a 1st grade learning specialist for KIPP NJ's Upper Roseville Academy, who supports students with disabilities; and Kristina Haag, the K-2 literacy achievement director for KIPP NJ.
The teachers, who also teach during the day, applied for the evening program positions. For their work with the evening program, teachers and administrators receive a stipend. The cost to operate the evening program so far as been $72,000, Fletcher said in an email.
The teachers and administrators meet once a week to discuss the students’ progress and ways to differentiate learning based on each child's strengths and needs. They also talk about other logistical efforts to make the most of the time they have with the students, such as deliveries of school supplies to students’ homes so they are prepared to participate in the lessons.
The teachers decided earlier this fall that the kindergarten and 1st grade would gather in one Zoom meeting, and teachers would use breakout rooms to provide more targeted lessons based on skill and grade levels.
One aspect that has made the evening program easier, the teachers said, is they have lessons planned and slides and videos prepared from their daytime classes.
“We learned a lot from the daytime program on what to avoid and what works well,” Ventrell said.
Squeezing it all in
At 6:40 p.m. on a recent Monday, Haag was working with the 1st-graders on sound drills. “C-h chair ch, repeat after me,” Haag tells the students. One student broke away quickly to charge his device. Another shouted with delight at spotting the silent "e" in lake.
When the students completed blending the sounds into words, Haag said, “Good job. Kiss your heads,” moving her index finger from her lips to her head.
By 7:15 p.m. Eger had moved from reading to exercise time. The students jumped, hopped, stretched and ran in place while Eger showed photos on the screen demonstrating the moves and played upbeat music to energize the students.
Next was math. Eger had students write down the missing number in a sequence of numbers and then count pictures of shoes. Then she challenged the students to add one more or subtract one less from their counts.
“Ms. Eger, you froze,” said one student when the teacher’s screen paused for too long.
Then it was 8:01 p.m. As most of her classmates logged off, Vanessa lingered, asking her teachers to draw pictures of fruit with her, which they did, holding up their creations to the screen. As they said their goodbyes, Eger called out to her young student, “See you tomorrow night.”