Getting a head start

Published 9:05 am Monday, September 3, 2012

Mackenzie Brede and Mayela Chavez play an alphabet game during class at Woodson Kindergarten. Some classes got an early start on the school year as finish up work continued in the new wing of the school. Eric Johnson/

Woodson students have much to look forward to in 2012-13

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday inside teacher Katie Keller’s Green Mouse classroom, and all the Woodson Kindergarten Center Critters are full of energy. In fact, watching it is a little like watching controlled chaos. Five kindergartners match letters to an alphabet tree, while another five practice drawing great big “A”s on a piece of paper. Another five are at the SMARTboard, playing alphabet games where you match a letter to the word that begins with it.

In the corner, five kindergarteners are learning bears. Specifically, they’re learning about “The Little Bears,” a book they worked on all week, according to Keller.

“What are these bears doing?” Keller asked the kindergartners, showing them a page from the book. “Sleeping!” the students excitedly replied.

Terry Wagner of Wagner Construction does some detail work in the new wing of Woodson Kindergarten last week. Eric Johnson/

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The school year began early for these kindergartners, as this is one of three classes to go back to school under the year-round, 45/15 schedule. But this classroom is pretty significant, and not just because they’re learning the alphabet.

Every September, Minnesota students slowly get themselves prepared for a new school year, with more things to learn. Yet there’s many new things at Austin Public Schools this year, and in Woodson in particular. After an expansion project, a heating and cooling renovation, a new principal, a new curriculum, new technology and even the new concept of school, these students are about to learn a whole new way of seeing the world. Woodson students are learning how to learn.

The typical school day begins with reading activities in Keller’s class, followed by work on phonics and a snack. There’s boost up exercise, which combines physical education with math and group learning skills, and even some play center time, where students get to use a room full of toys for 20 minutes — though the students are really learning to socialize.

A little recess, lunch, some calming kinesthetics that help teach coordination and a big helping of math on the SMARTboard carry the students through the afternoon in Keller’s class. After all that learning, students leave Woodson at about 1:50 p.m., singing when they’ll next see the teacher.

Yet Woodson students aren’t always ready for academics. As kindergartners, this is the first time many students have learned in a structured environment.

“The first month we usually spend learning how to learn,” Keller said. “We spend a lot of time on practicing daily routines.”

Practice appears to be paying off. As Keller showed students different pages of “The Little Bear,” several kindergartners know exactly how to answer.

“The little bear is … is … is … jumping!” Addison Windsor said, before getting ready to color a bear of her own.

Part of that practice is coming from the new Mondo reading curriculum, which is in all elementary-level classrooms this year. Sumner Elementary students practiced the new curriculum last year, with good results, as district officials say the new curriculum is helping students learn.

“It’s very skills-based,” said John Alberts, educational services director. “ It also really focuses on oral practice.”

In the classroom, that means kindergartners are encouraged to sound out words whenever possible. It also means a lot more practice and practical use, as students are memorizing letters and words on a daily basis. “The Little Bears” was one of several books, which includes “Humpty Dumpty” and other literary treasures, that students read throughout the entire week.

“They get pretty familiar with it,” Keller said.

Another tool students use to practice is a Visual Phonics DVD. Recorded last year, the short clip is played on the classroom SMARTboard, where a woman puts actions to letters so students have another way to remember the letter “N” sounds like “nnnn.” In less than five minutes, students go through the entire alphabet, saying “uh-uh-O,” “duh-duh-D” and “eh-eh-E,” in unison.

The most recent classroom tool students have is the iPad.

Each Woodson classroom gets six iPads to use this year, about 108 in total for the 18 classrooms at Woodson, mainly for reading and math activities. Students will occasionally use iPad applications disguised as games to practice spelling words and doing math once the school year starts.

Those iPads aren’t the only changes to the building, however. Woodson wrapped up a $1.22 million expansion project, which added another wing on the south side of the building, including six new classrooms and a whole lot of restructuring. The building also completed a Heating, Ventilation and Cooling renovation, part of a district-wide initiative to update HVAC units throughout Austin schools. That was due to a 2009 Qualified Zone Academy Bond the district secured, which are used by districts in areas affected by poverty to renovate school buildings among other things.

All the construction allowed school officials to change things up at Woodson. The administrative office is now on the north side, and the west wing now has more room for special education needs, including a new bathroom. Two of the six classrooms built are used for play centers, which opens up Woodson’s gym.

That extra space is used each day, as Woodson students practice phy ed and math skills during Boost Up, a series of exercises designed to get students thinking while they’re exercising.

“It’s like exercising your brain,” Keller said two Fridays ago, as her students did activities like swinging on monkey bars and walking on a small balance beam.

While students are busy learning new things, there’s a new principal learning how to manage a building with more than 360 kindergartners. Jessica Cabeen, who last year was Ellis Middle School Assistant Principal, is in charge of Woodson moving forward. Former Woodson Principal Jean McDermott is heading up Holton School, the new fifth- and sixth-grade intermediate school which opens next school year.

Woodson Kindergarten principal Jessica Cabeen works from her office as she prepared for the upcoming school year. Eric Johnson/

Cabeen is no stranger to kindergartners. She spent seven years teaching kindergarten, first and second grade in South St. Paul. As Woodson starts up next week, Cabeen will be ready to oversee school operations and meet many more future Austin graduates. What’s more, she’ll be a Woodson parent as her son Isaiah will start kindergarten this year.

“You can sit from all sides of the table that way,” she said with a smile.

Cabeen is already busy showing parents the new school, and getting current Woodson Critters accustomed to all the new students that will come to the school.

There’s 389 kindergartners registered, and school staff say they wouldn’t be surprised if more than 400 students came to school as the school year gets going. Parents and students already had a chance to look at the new building setup Thursday, and Cabeen said many were impressed.

“Having the parents and the kids come in has made it a little more real,” she said. “The parents just enjoyed seeing the new wing.”

With all of these new things, Woodson students have a lot to find out this year. They’re quickly picking things up, however. One morning, as students worked on their reading activities, Zoe Kewatt was looking at the alphabet train on the board, trying to match lower-case letters with upper-case letters. One of her classmates earlier mismatched an “h” with an “E.” At first, Zoe thought that was the correct answer. She changed her mind after she pulled out a little ‘e’ block from a pouch on the board.

“Wait, that’s an ‘e’ that goes there!” she exclaimed, showing she knew how to correct her work.