Youngest students can get extra help catching up with the curve


  • Monday, June 2, 2008 12:10pm
  • News


Disco ABCs clearly called for 18 kindergartners at Cedar Valley Elementary School to mimic John Travolta’s famous “Saturday Night Fever” moves in teacher Joy Kawaoka’s classroom on a recent Thursday morning.

About an hour into the school day, after working with her students on counting, writing letters, identifying the number of words in a sentence or the sound an individual letter makes among other skills, Kawaoka had pulled up iTunes on the classroom laptop. The machine is hooked up to a SmartBoard, an interactive white board that can be written on like any other white board, but can also display what’s on the computer screen as well as operate the laptop with its touch-based user interface.

“It’s really powerful,” Kawaoka said. “I use it as a tool.”

She was able to select the disco ABCs song from the iTunes library. The kids sang along while dancing to the disco beat. All Kawaoka needed was a disco ball hanging from the ceiling.

Kawaoka teaches a special group of students in the Kindergarten Academic Intervention program at Cedar Valley. It is offered currently at all Title I elementary schools in the Kent School District (a Title I school is one where a large percentage of the students participate in the free or reduced-lunch program), but next year it will be replaced with a regular full-day kindergarten program at Cedar Valley.

Principal Rhonda Wilkerson said students are selected for Kawaoka’s class at the kindergarten roundup before school starts, based on an assessment of their skills.

“Over the years, we’ve had kids come who didn’t recognize letters,” Wilkerson said. “If you wrote their name, they didn’t know that was their name.”

Wilkerson credits Kawaoka for getting these students who may have started off behind the curve ready for first grade.

“It’s amazing,” Wilkerson said. “She’s just awesome and phenomenal.”

The principal describes Kawaoka as an investigator who works to find the keys that will unlock a child’s ability to learn.

It wasn’t easy at first, though, for Kawaoka, who has taught at Cedar Valley for seven years.

“The first year when I made phone calls to tell parents that their children qualified for the program, I had parents cry and hang up on me,” she said. “Now they have seen the outcome and really want their children in the program.”

Kawaoka described her classroom as high-energy. As the school year has gone on, her once quiet students have become chatty and often need extra physical activity to keep focused.

First, though, each day starts off with breakfast. Students were coming to class hungry, and Kawaoka worked with the school’s kitchen staff to provide breakfast.

“I can’t teach a hungry child,” Kawaoka said. “That’s why it’s so chaotic in the morning. Some kids are eating and other kids are doing an entry task.”

When students arrive, breakfast is already set out. Kawaoka and her teacher’s aide, Doris Neds, ask each child if they’ve had breakfast, and if so, what they ate.

Thursday is popcorn day at the school, so the odor of popcorn in the air mixed with the faint hint of peanut butter the kids had with graham crackers for breakfast.

Another strategy Kawaoka has employed this year: “There are about four of my children at the beginning of the school year who didn’t even know which hand they wanted to write with. I went to our occupational therapist. We realized some of them were lacking the core strength.”

So a couple of exercises to build up the muscles in the children’s stomachs and lower backs were started. First, they pull their knees to their chest and wrap their arms around them; while lifting their heads, they hold the position for five seconds. Kawaoka has them repeat it a few times.

Next, they roll on their bellies on the floor and get ready to emulate Superman. “Fly,” Kawaoka said. “But I want quiet flying.”

The students lifted their legs and arms off the floor and 18 kindergartners looked like they were trying to fly. Hold for five seconds and repeat a few times.

Within a few weeks of starting the exercises, the youngsters were able to figure out which was their dominant hand. Kawaoka said she’s not sure if it helped or if it’s just coincidence, but it probably didn’t hurt.

These exercises are also helpful for those times the students get a bit restless and need to move around a bit. “They need a stimulating environment, and I try to provide that,” Kawaoka said.

Each day is highly structured because the kids thrive within structure and routine, she said. Kawaoka also reaches out to the families of her students. She invites parents into thje classroom for dinner.

“I do a lot of parent connections,” she said. “They can see how their child learns, and also I give them some activities to take home to get them involved in their child’s education.”

She’s not sure how it’s going to be next year when the most at-risk students are collected and taken under her wing. But for now, she’s enjoying her work.

“I find it challenging where every year I have a new crop,” Kawaoka said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do or what they will allow us to do, but this is my specialty.”

At the end of the year, she said, her students aren’t “the lowest 20 any more. Some of them really blossom.”

Staff writer Kris Hill can be reached at (425) 432-1209 (extension 5054) and


Under Title I, which Congress authorized in 1965 to help disadvantaged students, federal money from the U.S. Department of Education is routed to school districts to use in locally designed intervention programs. The programs provide additional educational support and instruction for struggling students.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in News

This screenshot from Auburn Police Department bodycam footage shows an officer about to fire his weapon and kill dog on May 13, 2022.
Auburn police shoot dog, and owner claims it wasn’t justified

See videos of attack as well as bodycam footage of officer firing at dog.

File photo.
King County Council approves creation of Cannabis Safety Taskforce amid rash of dispensary robberies

The multi-agency task force will cooperate to find ways to improve safety in the cash-only industry.

U.S. Department of Justice logo.
Renton man sentenced for killing of woman in Olympic National Forest

Authorities say the he brutally beat to death the California woman who he was having an affair with.

Screenshot from ORCA website
New ORCA system launches for regional transit across the Puget Sound

Overhaul includes new website, mobile application and digital business account manager.

Judged by XII: A King County Local Dive podcast. The hands shown here belong to Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, who has been charged with homicide in the 2019 death of Jesse Sarey.
JUDGED BY XII (Episode 4): Foster mom wants accountability in Auburn cop’s upcoming murder trial

Special podcast series explores Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson’s role in the death of Jesse Sarey.

Diane Renee Erdmann and Bernard Ross Hansen. Photos courtesy of FBI
FBI arrests Auburn couple after 11-day manhunt

The couple was previously convicted for fraud and skipped sentencing on April 29.

FILE PHOTO: King County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
Dozens of King County Sheriff’s Office employees left jobs instead of getting vaccinated

This added on to the existing number of vacancies in the department.

Environmental microbiologist Dr. Natalie Prystajecky with some of her staff members at the BC Centre for Disease Control. Photo: Submitted
Wastewater testing for COVID-19 coming to Interior Health

Testing can tell whether cases are rising or falling in a community

King County logo
King County audit finds backlog of property tax exemption applications for seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans

The auditors found that program expansions lead to three-times the amount of applications.

Most Read