"What types of animals live in the woods?" Kelly Piazza, a kindergarten teacher at Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School, asked preschool students Halo and KiLeigh.
"A bear!" KiLeigh shouted.
"Snakes," said Halo.
Piazza pointed to a page in the book she was holding in front of the two 5-year-olds at a small table in her Camp K classroom Tuesday.
"How many words are on this page?" she asked.
"Three!" answered Halo. "See the bear."
CAMP K SITES
Alpine Crest Elementary
Bess T. Shepherd Elementary
East Brainerd Elementary
East Lake Elementary
East Ridge Elementary
North Hamilton Elementary
Orchard Knob Elementary
Wolftever Creek Elementary
As Camp K, an intensive, four-week program to prepare rising kindergartners for school, charges forward into its second summer, its founders celebrate encouraging results from last year's cohort.
Launched in 2018 as a partnership among Chattanooga 2.0, Hamilton County Schools, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and about a dozen other entities, the free program is aimed at students who have never had a pre-K experience or formal schooling.
While 39% of Hamilton County kindergartners score below grade level on screenings upon starting school, 50% of last year's 211 students enrolled in the program scored on target during their kindergarten screenings.
"The students who attended Camp K arrived more ready than if they hadn't attended the camp," said Becky Covington, director of early learning for the school district.
Which is good news for Camp K, an effort jump-started by a Smart City Venture Fund grant last year. The fund approved $375,000 to fund a two-year pilot program serving 300 students each year. Last year, the program's 12 sites never hit capacity, but this year the program was expanded to 26 classrooms at 15 sites, with more than 400 students participating.
The camp is open to all Hamilton County rising kindergartners. For the month of June, 4- and-5-year-olds spend the day in a classroom staffed with Hamilton County Schools teachers, education assistants and student teachers from UTC.
They focus on learning letters and their sounds, recognizing numbers, writing their names, beginning the process of learning to read and getting used to the daily parts of going to school — working with others, sitting together, walking in a line and more, Covington said.
"A lot of the results we see aren't in the numbers and the data but in the child's mannerisms and behavior, being used to school and working with others, walking in a line, sitting on the carpet," she said.
Covington added that the district doesn't track how Camp K attendees compare to their classmates who attended a full-year of pre-K, though, and it's likely those students still outperform Camp K participants.
"Nothing is as significant as a year of pre-K," she said. But it's hard to track formal schooling before kindergarten because programs vary and Hamilton County Schools' programs only have about 900 preschool seats available each year.
Kelly Piazza has taught kindergarten for more than three years. She said it's very obvious when new students have never been to school before. It can take teachers months to get them used to a classroom environment and working independently.
THE CHATTANOOGA BASICS
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"When kiddos haven't had that classroom exposure, there's definitely a gap," Piazza said. ""We spend a lot of time at the beginning of kindergarten getting them used to it."
Since she's been working alongside an assistant in a classroom with a maximum of 15 students through Camp K this summer, Piazza said it's easier to work in small groups and one-on-one with students.
"Assistants make it amazing and easier to jump in with a small group of students," she said. "Then you can jump into more rigorous standards and lessons."
Research shows that kindergarten readiness can predict student achievement — students who start behind, stay behind.
In Hamilton County, education leaders have characterized this as a "cycle of catch-up."
Molly Blankenship, interim executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, said that as her organization and the community focus on post-secondary attainment and workforce development, they must also focus on early education and laying the foundations for success.
"Our two bold goals are focused on doubling post-secondary attainment," she said. "But we know that early childhood development [and] early childhood education is critical to long-term success for our community in terms of post-secondary attainment and workforce development, so we have to be focused all across the continuum, not just on short-term strategies but on long-term investments that will change the way that education happens in Hamilton County."
The program also helps prepare parents to support their child's learning. Parents are encouraged to attend four parent engagement sessions that include topics such as Chattanooga basics, presented by the Early Matters Team, which outlines ways parents can get their infants and children ready for school; adverse child experiences and language and literacy development.
"You see over 15 organizations who are members of Early Matters here, working with parents and making sure that they are equipped, so I think it's a great example of what Chattanooga 2.0 is all about. It's about all of us coming together to solve a common problem."
Blankenship is unsure of the future of Camp K — its initial funding was for a two-year pilot, and Chattanooga 2.0 has undergone significant changes with the departure of former Executive Director Jared Bigham and former Director of Programs Robin Cayce. But she said Chattanooga 2.0 will continue to look at how to continue the program.
"We continue to look at what has worked in Camp K and take those [practices] and try to scale those across the district to make sure that all Hamilton County students who need support like Camp K can access them," she said.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.