We see about 90 percent of our students coming in to kindergarten (are) not ready. We kept thinking, we've got to look at doing something. —Eagle View Principal Robert Stearmer
FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — Laween Billmire works her way around the small tables in her classroom, checking on her students as they use a crayon to trace the letters that make up their names.
"Very good, Robert," she tells one boy. "We've been working on that 'b.' You've got it!"
Billmire taught kindergarten at Eagle View Elementary School last year. This year she's got a class of 20 preschoolers — the first such class at the school that received a three-year, $1.8 million federal grant for a preschool program.
"We see about 90 percent of our students coming in to kindergarten (are) not ready," said Eagle View Principal Robert Stearmer. "We kept thinking, we've got to look at doing something."
Eagle View was created four years ago, after the Uintah School District was forced by the federal government to restructure Todd Elementary and West Junior High schools following years of poor academic performance. Todd met No Child Left Behind standards sporadically; West never did, Stearmer said.
Stearmer, the only principal Eagle View has ever had, has worked with his faculty and staff to change attitudes at the school and to try to foster a culture of academic success. The new direction has received strong support from the Ute Indian Tribe as well, Stearmer said. Native American students make up 70 percent of the school's student body, he said.
The changes have started to have an impact. Eagle View nearly met the No Child Left Behind standards two years ago, and met them last year.
Stearmer said the preschool grant, which also includes money for teacher development, is another step forward because it addresses a critical need.
"Research and experience show that if you're not on grade-level by third grade, it's extremely difficult to catch up," he said, explaining the reason for going after the preschool funding.
Ray Reutzel, the Emma Eccles Jones Distinguished Professor of Early Literacy at Utah State University, is working with Eagle View as part of the federal grant. He makes himself available to the faculty via email, but also visits the school to meet with teachers and discuss strategies helping students learn to read and write.
Being prepared for kindergarten has never been more important, Reutzel said.
"Other nations are educating their children younger and they go to school longer," he said. "They basically are further along than our students are at the same point in time."
The students coming to Eagle View as kindergartners are even farther behind, according to Reutzel.
"We need a preschool for these children because many of them are coming out of environments where they do not have access to the circumstances and context that other more-privileged children have," he said. "This is sort of a compensatory program ... to get them ready for kindergarten in a very rich, academic, play-oriented environment."
Eagle View's teachers have already taken Reutzel's lessons and put them into practice in their classrooms, the professor said.
"They really want to help their students, and that makes things a lot easier, when teachers are willing to be shown that there are different ways of doing things than they've done them in the past," Reutzel said.
Eagle View still struggles with attendance problems that could derail its success.
"You can't teach them if they're not here," Stearmer said.
But the changes at Eagle View have most of the kids eager to come to school, and that has rubbed off on the teachers, he said.
"When they see the excitement on the students' faces, and they light up," Stearmer said. "You see (the students) competing quite well academically and making that growth. That's the pay that doesn't come in an envelope."