They know the alphabet, can read and write a bit and fit right in with a challenging first year in school – they are the students in the pilot advanced academics kindergarten program.

Sun 'N Lake Elementary kindergarten teacher Leah Wilson asked her students Thursday morning to write the word "tree" in their notebook.

After glancing at each student's paper, Wilson said: "I have a hard time trying to trick anybody today. You all got that."

The students quickly grasped the lesson on long "e" sounds and were eager to raise their hands to answer Wilson's questions.

A regular kindergarten class would be coloring a drawing of a large fish on a work sheet and then would be asked to circle the drawings of the objects that started with the letter "f."

But Wilson's advanced academics students will be tackling lessons involving sentences.

The HAART program – Highlands Advanced Academics Rising Together – started with grades fourth and fifth in 2005. It's designed to meet the needs of students who are not easily challenged in a regular classroom.

The program has grown to include grades one through eight district wide. Also, for the first time this year, there is a kindergarten pilot program with three classes at the Kindergarten Learning Center and one class each at Sun 'N Lake and Lake Placid elementary schools.

After teaching a regular kindergarten class in past years, Wilson said her biggest challenge is staying ahead of the students in her advanced academics class.

"Before I knew what to do all year long," she said. "Now I'm staying one step ahead and making sure I'm pulling resources so they are continually learning.

"We are working on sentence structure and vowel patterns with words, stuff that we never did before with kindergarten. I'm doing more first-grade and even second-grade work with them."

Though the federal No Child Left Behind Act addresses students who are struggling, the Highlands County School District has the viewpoint that students who have the ability have the same right to be challenged, Wilson said.

All the kindergarten students are tested in the first week of the school year to assess their skills and in the case of the kindergarten pilot schools to also determine who will be in the advanced academics class.

The testing determines a student's reading and math skills, such as identifying numbers and counting, said Ruth Heckman, director of secondary programs, who also oversees advanced academics.

That's something we have just developed so it's being tweaked all the time to determine if that's the best criteria and if the right students are in the HAART class, she said.

One of the issues with advanced academics in kindergarten is that students go to one teacher's class and then two or three weeks later they are changing teachers, Heckman said. "That's why it's a pilot program because we are just not sure that's going to be something that is best for kids in all situations."

Another issue is that a student who had attended a daycare that provided academics will probably test better, but may or may not be a right fit for a HAART class, she said.

Sun 'N Lake Elementary Principal Diane Lethbridge said at the start of the school year, the appropriate students in her school were moved to an advanced academics class in less than a week.

If a student knows all their letter names and letter sounds, which are beginning kindergarten skills, Lethbridge said, there's no reason they should be sitting in a class that says "this is the letter 'M' and 'M' sounds like mmm" and all week they talk about what words start with that letter.

"It's an academic program because without doing more formalized testing we can't test aptitude," she said. So after that kindergarten experience some of those kids may not continue in HAART.

Some students may have had more early exposure to reading for example, but they are an average learner and would benefit from a regular first-grade class, Lethbridge said.

"I'm personally thrilled with HAART," she said. "I feel that these students that come to school knowing the kindergarten curriculum should have access to a rigorous curriculum and we are going to prepare these children for the future."

Parents can learn more about advanced academics at their child's school and through the advanced academics parent network at


Source: Tampa Tribune –