Morton Elementary School Implements Lewis County’s First Transitional Kindergarten Program


There’s something special happening in Room 17 at Morton Elementary School. 

Inside the basement level classroom, transitional kindergarten teacher Kevin Dunlap reads a book on the alphabet to a class of energetic and engaged students, most of them 4 years old. 

The group of 25 is part of the school’s inaugural transitional kindergarten class, a first-of-its-kind program for not only Morton School District but Lewis County, according to district leaders.

“I think it’s been outstanding,” Superintendent John Hannah said of the district’s fourth week in the classroom. 

The program is part of a larger commitment by Morton School District to focus on early learning opportunities, as outlined in the district’s recently-passed 10-year strategic plan. 

The new transitional kindergarten program has so far received rave reviews from parents, families and students alike. The program works like this: Instead of students enrolling in a second year of preschool, transitional preschool acts as a step up, allowing students to take in-person classes full time and five days a week. 

Transitional kindergarten classes start out similar to preschool in that students are heavily focused on activities and “learn by play,” but they transition later in the year to more curriculum-focused learning that helps them move into kindergarten, a year when state instruction typically begins. 

"Hopefully we'll be closing the vocabulary gap between kids and make kids, when they're going into kindergarten, know what school's about, know how to get along with kids, know things as simple as sharing … So that teachers can focus on the curriculum more," said Elementary Principal Josh Brooks. 

District leaders also see this as an opportunity to catch students up who may not be learning those basic learning skills and functions at a pace similar to peers. Early learning education has been touted as foundational to a child’s educational success and achievements throughout their educational careers and beyond. 

Dunlap, a former kindergarten teacher who has worked in the district for four years, said he was “all for” leading the charge on the district’s new transitional kindergarten program. 

"It's a lot of fun working with these guys every day. They show up so excited every day," he said of his class. "The goal of this program is to bridge that gap in education that you see in kindergarten … and even the playing field."

A lot of the first four weeks, Dunlap said, has been about polite exploration of topics, play and social interactions. Also, there has been plenty of reading and activity time. 

Across the hallway from his new classroom is Room 16, where Tiffany Coleman and elementary school staff are prepping another classroom to be occupied by transitional kindergarteners. In the coming weeks, half of Dunlap’s 25-student class will splinter off and be under the supervision of Coleman. 

“Their minds are like sponges, so it’s just exciting to have that impact on their educational careers,” said Coleman, a Morton paraeducator recently hired for the transitional kindergarten teaching role. 

Jackie Dunlap, an instructor in the early childhood education and assistance program (E-CEAP), also known as pre-K, teaches just down the hall from where her son, Kevin Dunlap, teaches (in fact, there are five Dunlaps altogether who teach at the Morton School District). 

In E-CEAP, students attend class for half a day, four days a week. 

She’s been teaching at Morton for 27 years, and has given instruction in nearly every grade, but this is her first year teaching E-CEAP, the grade below her son’s classroom. 

“When Kevin gets them, he’ll teach them how to spell their names, how to count higher and hopefully get some more of the curriculum in there,” she said. 

Kevin Dunlap said families and parents have been engaged and supportive of the new transitional kindergarten program. 

"It's teamwork. It's me, you and their child, working together. I send home newsletters asking (parents) to reinforce skills we're learning in the class. It makes a huge difference," he said. “They're loving the program so far. I've got a lot of comments and people who are loving the communication. Their kids are coming home every day and really loving school.” 

Brooks said the program is important because it helps to remove many of the roadblocks that exist for families looking for child care or a learning environment for their children to be during the daytime. 

About 70% of Morton School District’s student population seven years ago qualified for free and reduced lunch, Hannah said. Today, it’s at about 55%, though Hannah believes that may be an undercount. Many more families than they can confirm are currently struggling with poverty. 

Morton’s transitional kindergarten program was based on a similar program hosted at Bellingham Public Schools. Brooks said the Whatcom County school district has been very forthcoming and willing to share their success with Morton, and detail the mistakes they learned in the process of building a program from the ground up.