‘Promise K’ gives Bellingham kids a jump start to their education

Months before Deja Fink’s son was set to begin kindergarten, she didn’t think he was ready.

Her son, Patrick Mills, had never been to preschool or day care, and he had no experience being around other kids in a social setting.

It wasn’t until Fink heard about Promise Kindergarten, a program launched as a pilot in 2014, that she was able to give her son the early education she believed he needed before starting kindergarten.

Promise Kindergarten, known as Promise K, is a full-day, early-entrance kindergarten program for children in the Bellingham School District who are scheduled to start kindergarten the following fall. So far, parents and educators say the program has given kids the skills they need to jump into school ready to learn.

Promise K started as a pilot program in 2014. After parents raved about its success, it expanded to 20 weeks in 2015. The first day of class was Feb. 2.

This year’s program will go for 20 weeks, from February until June. More than 70 students are enrolled, according to Kristi Dominguez, Early Childhood Education director for Bellingham School District.

Dominguez said many children cannot get into preschool or Head Start — another early childhood education program — so they end up in kindergarten sitting next to students with school experience that they don’t have.

The program is a way for the district to reach the children who don’t have access to other early childhood education programs, Dominguez said.

Fink enrolled her son in the 10-week pilot program last year after other programs she tried were full. At the time, Patrick didn’t know his ABCs, couldn’t write his name, and had never been in a classroom full of kids.

That all changed after the pilot program, and he was able to enter kindergarten this school year with the same skills as the other children.

“He has grown so much just from having that little piece of what it was going to be like,” Fink said.

The program also gives kindergarten teachers the opportunity to teach a classroom full of kids who have similar school experience.

Karin Otterholt, who teaches kindergarten at Roosevelt Elementary, said the Promise K pilot last year helped this year’s kindergarteners come in better prepared.

“They already learned how to do school,” Otterholt said. “They came in knowing how to do all those basic things, like walk in a line.”

She said the kids who went through Promise K knew how to make friends, how to share with others and how to be a part of a group. It has made teaching easier for Otterholt, since the range of learning ability is not as dramatic as it would have been without Promise K.

“Those beginning academic skills that we find so many kids need, these kids got to explore and participate in in the Promise K program,” Otterholt said.

Western Washington University graduates who studied early childhood education were hired as teachers of the Promise K classes, Dominguez said. The district also partners with Opportunity Council to find children and families who may benefit from Promise K.

The program is funded the same way as other kindergarten classes, said Bellingham School District communications manager Jacqueline Brawley. Some of the money comes from the state, and the rest — about 30 percent — comes from local levies and community partners.

Children qualify for the free program if they show an academic, social and financial need. The 10-week pilot program that started in April 2014 was offered at Happy Valley, Carl Cozier, Roosevelt and Alderwood elementary schools. There is a maximum of 18 children per class.

Otterholt said it is “amazingly different” teaching a class where all the students have had some sort of early learning before kindergarten. With Promise K expanding to 20 weeks this year, she’s already excited to teach her next kindergarten class.

“I can only imagine what we’re going to see next year,” Otterholt said.