Solving middle school problems in elementary school - Naval Avenue principal appointed to federal early education task force

Naval Avenue Early Learning Center Principal John Welsh chats with second-grader Elaina Tacey in Liza Piper
Naval Avenue Early Learning Center Principal John Welsh chats with second-grader Elaina Tacey in Liza Piper's Montessori class. The first through third grade Montessori at Naval Avenue, which started this month, is the Bremerton School District's first public Montessori program.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

During his 16 years as a middle school special education teacher, John Welsh lamented that by the time students got to him, it was almost too late.

Teachers were overwhelmed by the number of students not meeting basic education requirements and couldn't give each child the attention necessary to catch them up.

"It used to be very frustrating to see interventions that needed to happen in middle school that I see every day in elementary school," said Welsh, now principal at Naval Avenue Early Learning Center. "We run out of resources to do the special education because there's just too many kids to address."

For this reason Welsh feels his work at a school specializing in early education is anticipating the problems today that middle school students will face tomorrow.

Now he'll be working on a larger stage, helping more students. Welsh was appointed this summer to the National Association of Elementary School Principals task force on early education.

He will make the first of several trips to Washington, D.C. Sept. 20, where he will help advise on federal policies that will attempt to ease students' transition from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten.

Most students go to preschool at a different school from where they go to kindergarten. The result is kindergarten classes have children whose skills and education levels vary widely, making it difficult to bring everyone to state and national standards, Welsh said.

Furthermore, the fact that pre-kindergarten and K-12 programs are overseen by different federal agencies - Head Start under the Department of Health and Human Services and K-12 education under the Department of Education - also creates a division between those age levels. Currently, it is up to individual districts to determine early learning guidelines and provide resources, Welsh said.

But in schools such as Naval Avenue — which includes preschool, Head Start, a new Montessori and early education for those as young as six months — children's education is more streamlined between grade levels.

"We try to make it a seamless transition," Welsh said. "Once kids hit school age, it takes longer to get kids where they need to be."

Entering his fourth year as principal of Naval Avenue, Welsh has been with the school since its shed fourth- and fifth-grade classes and adopted pre-school classes. Previously, he was an assistant principal at Bremerton Junior High School and Mountain View Middle School, but his background is in middle school special education teaching, which he did in the Seattle and Steilacoom school districts. It was there that he saw how a greater focus on early childhood education could prevent problems later in students' academic careers.

By bolstering early education, the number of children who fall through the cracks are reduced and teachers' jobs are made easier.

The Bremerton School District consistently ranks in the 90th percentile statewide in reading scores among districts that have state-funded full-day kindergarten, said Special Programs Director Linda Sullivan-Dudzic. In fall 2009, 47 percent of incoming kindergarden students met reading benchmarks, a number that hit 91 percent at the end of the school year. Those high reading scores will improve students' ability to learn throughout their schooling, Sullivan-Dudzic said.

"We have them reading at the end of kindergarten," she said. "You can only imagine what that does for your options in life."

In addition to the approximately 480 students who attend Naval Avenue, the school also provides curriculum assistance and training to private and home-based preschools and public agencies throughout the city, making Naval Avenue a school whose reach extends citywide, much to Welsh's credit, Sullivan-Dudzic said.

"The way he has developed the Pre-K through 3 early learning center, it truly is a community school," she said. "He has attracted and developed and continued to nurture community relationships."

Wendy Stevens' 4-year-old daughter Abigail attends Advantage Montessori, located at Naval Avenue, for preschool. Though Advantage is a private school, unaffiliated with Naval Avenue, Stevens was so impressed with Naval Avenue's staff and programs that she became the school's PTA president this year.

She wants her daughter to attend Naval Avenue starting the next fall - even though they live closer to View Ridge Elementary - and is considering putting her in the Spanish immersion program.

"It was Naval that I just fell in love with," Stevens said, describing the school's supportive faculty and staff. "I've been so impressed by so many of them and the hard work they put into it."

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