testing skills before school

While his mother waited in the library, 4-year-old Jorge Ponce sat across the table from kindergarten teacher Lindsay Greene as he recited numbers and identified colors during a 15-minute screening Friday.

“My hand is getting a little tired, so can you do me a favor?” Greene asked. “Can you write your name right here?”

Jorge's big dimples deepened as he concentrated and printed his name the best he could.

The incoming kindergartner was one of almost 80 students who attended a screening and orientation at Dixie Elementary.

All Fayette County elementary schools held the first districtwide orientation Friday, which included a controversial screening for math and literacy skills.

As of June 1, 1,611 kindergartners were registered; 2,900 kindergartners are expected this year.

“It's a good idea because they get to know him before school starts,” said Jorge's mother, Elizabeth Ponce, of the screening.

Some parents and early childhood advocates are concerned about the screening, raising questions about its validity and how the results will be used.

District officials have said the screen is simply for teachers to get a snapshot of students' skills.

Despite those worries, parents interviewed Friday seemed pleased by the screening.

“He was ready to go, he was pumped. He couldn't wait to see the teachers,” said Deana McLean, of her 5-year-old son Trevor.

Over at Cassidy Elementary, about 50 students went through the screening and orientation, said Principal Rhonda Fister. Parents were grouped in the cafeteria while incoming kindergartners went upstairs to the library, where they met teachers for the screening.

Parents who are nervous that their children might freeze during the screening need not worry, said Fister. Children either will be re-screened or will be assessed during the first few weeks of school, she said.

Noah Russell, 5, had no problem with the screening, said his mother, Lorie Russell.

“He just went on. He didn't say goodbye or nothing,” Russell said. “And he's my shy one.”

The district came up with the idea for the screening program after teachers requested a tool to better assess incoming students.

During the screening, students were asked to identify letters, numbers, shapes, colors and sounds.

“It just gets the ball rolling from the very beginning,” said Jennifer Geldof, a Dixie Elementary kindergarten and first-grade teacher. “We can hit the ground running with what the kids have to learn.”

Both Dixie and Cassidy have had similar screenings and orientations for incoming students in the past, but this is the first time it's been a systematic initiative in the district.

In most cases, students were screened separate from their parents. But for students who were nervous, parents came along.

Geldof said one boy didn't want to leave his father's side. He was anxious and initially didn't answer questions. But eventually he eased into the screening.

“We started building on his success. Before he knew it, he recited the entire alphabet while sitting on his dad's lap,” she said.

The screening “is really no different than the conversations I'd have in my classes every day,” Geldof said.