- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - A group of Madison School District 321 preschoolers had just finished free play in the Burton Elementary School gym when they were told to line up in the hallway outside.

Fidgety and restless, the students walked single file to their classrooms for snacks.

After sitting down to eat, each child had to find their name in a pile of laminated cards.

“We do that so they can recognize their names, but also letters,” Burton principal Landon LeFevre told the Post Register (https://bit.ly/2mAVACn ).

For some students, the activity takes a little extra time.

Two of Burton’s preschool classes are designed for English-language learners, who often come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and typically require specialized instruction.

Each class features a mix of 10 “typical peers” who primarily speak English, and 12 English-language learners who don’t.

Madison’s English-language learning preschoolers are diverse; they come from Mexico, Ukraine, Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere, according to LeFevre. There are 24 English-language learning students in the program.

Unlike most states, Idaho doesn’t fund preschool, so comprehensive public district pre-K education isn’t common in the Gem State. Burton’s English-language learner preschool program is even less so.

Madison’s program is unique in many ways, including in that it is primarily self-funded through the district’s general fund and through tuition from its typical peer students.

“We go out and find these kids; we’re not required by law to have a program. It’s just something we feel is important to our community because it gets the students ready for kindergarten,” LeFevre said. “We saw a need and have seen how well it’s done. It’s really helped a lot of these kids and families.”

There’s a noticeable improvement in ability and likelihood of success through upper grades when English-language learning students enter kindergarten after attending preschool at Burton, program coordinator Leticia Harris said.

“I’ve tried to get as many kids as we can who don’t speak English into the program,” she said. “I would say we have a better rate of preschool-educated English-language learning kids going into kindergarten doing as well as their regular peers because the ones who don’t attend preschool, they really do struggle.”

Most of the “typical peers” are Idaho natives, while about 80 percent of English-language learners are from Mexico and South America, Harris said.

English as a Second Language students don’t pay to attend preschool at Burton. Many of their families can’t afford to, Harris said. Typical peers pay $100 or $140 per term, depending on the term. The 135-minute class is held twice per week.

Most preschool funds come through Madison’s general budget, according to business manager Varr Snedaker.

This year, $133,000 from the district’s general fund and $30,000 in federal special education funding is budgeted for the entire preschool program, which includes 11 developmentally disabled classes in addition to the ESL classes.

For many English-language learners, Burton’s preschool class is their largest exposure to English so far. Many of their relatives don’t speak the language.

“If the TV they’re watching is in Spanish or another language, their parents are speaking to them in a different language, grandma or grandpa speaks to them in a different language, they hardly get any English practice,” LeFevre said.

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Information from: Post Register, https://www.postregister.com

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