By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — At Hillside Elementary, students are eager to learn — even before they’re technically students. As part of the school’s 1,000 Book program, preschoolers who are Hillside-bound are invited to start coming to school before they’re old enough to enroll.
With their parents, they walk down the halls they’ll soon navigate as “big kids.” They arrive at a wall outside the library hung with bright-red bags full of books and help themselves.
The program, which is in place throughout all the Niskayuna elementary schools, encourages very young children to get excited about reading and prepares them to excel in kindergarten and beyond. Each future student who participates is challenged to read a total of 1,000 books, and they’re honored for their achievement in a ceremony at the end of each school year.
These avid readers can take as long as they’d like to complete the challenge. They can be honored at any of the yearly ceremonies, as kindergartners or first-graders or even fifth-graders, although the books in the red bags are way below their reading level at that age.
However, most get their recognition before they even become kindergartners. The initiative is so much fun, each kid’s pile of conquered paperbacks just keeps on growing.
Scarlett Vanderheyden, 4, couldn’t seem to contain her grin as she hugged her red book bag at the 1,000 Book Kickoff event Oct. 16. At the event, parents learned about the program’s fine points, while Hillside librarian Deb Ubriaco read the littlest visitors a storybook.
When asked when she would start her reading, Scarlett exclaimed, “Tonight!” then added: “In the morning I’m going to start the rest.”
Her mom, Melissa Vanderheyden, said the program had helped her daughter prepare for kindergarten.
“She’s so excited to go to school,” she said.
Teachers at Hillside love the program, too. It gives them a chance to meet their students ahead of time and help them build a relationship with books before they start to think of reading as homework.
“They take them home and they’re so excited to see what’s inside,” reading teacher Heather Mason said of the bright red book bags. “They can come anytime during the school day.”
Mason added that older siblings love the program, too. Those already in school, who are working on their reading skills in class, get a chance to play the teacher for a change.
This approach to learning, which teaches kids that important tasks like reading are fun, is central to Hillside’s mission. The official mission statement is long, but essentially it says that all students are inherently unique, capable and entitled to a great education.
Recently, the school received a resounding vote of confidence that it is, in fact, fulfilling that mission. Earlier this fall, Hillside was selected to be among 340 Federal Blue Ribbon schools nationwide. The designation elated the building’s teachers, students and families.
“We were pleasantly surprised last year in the fall,” Hillside Principal Shireen Fasciglione said. That was when she received notice that the school had been offered one just 19 nomination slots available for New York state.
“We had to commit to a pretty thorough application process,” she said.
Fasciglione, who is in her 13th year as head of the school, said the application process and subsequent award are really due to a community effort. She and eight faculty members worked with two parents to perfect the application.
Federal Blue Ribbon schools can be selected for either their overall achievement or for their strides in closing the achievement gap between “subgroups,” as the U.S. Department of Education website puts it. Hillside is in the first category: its students’ test scores, even during the bumpy process of Common Core Standards implementation, are above average.
Compiling information about the school, like demographics and test scores, was no problem for the staff and parents who applied for the award. The real challenge was in presenting and explaining data for the evaluators, who could be from anywhere in the country. Fasciglione said the team was concerned that readers of the application might see a drop in test scores two years ago, resulting from statewide changes in testing and grading, as a red flag.
“Somebody in Illinois could be reading the application,” she said, and might not realize that during the last few years, schools across the state have been rolling out Common Core Standards that brought down testing achievement levels across the board.
“The state raised the cut scores for basic and proficient [levels],” Fasciglione said. However, along with Hillside’s nomination, state officials also sent guidelines for explaining the changes in test scores to reviewers.
Fasciglione said even with the test score hurdle, she and her application team weren’t exceptionally worried about how they would present Hillside, because they believed their strengths were much more than numbers could express.
“Test scores, for us, are really not what we’re about,” she said. “We really want [the students] to do well in life, as lifelong learners.”
Fasciglione said she’s more inclined to think of achievement in terms of students who are happy, show academic growth and make smart choices.
Even better, of course, is if they start before they ever get to Hillside. At the 1,000 Book Kickoff event, 4-year-old Jack Redding raved about his favorite books, the Berenstain Bears series. His mom, Marna Redding, said they had already started picking up red bags of books over the summer. They took some on vacation.
Jack is already sold on the idea that reading is fun. (“I know the Go, Dog, Go words!” he said. “Easy peasy.”) He’s even started to pass it on to his infant sister. He climbs into her crib every morning to bring her a present.
“I read her a story,” the future Hillside kindergartner said proudly.
Fasciglione also emphasized the fact that the practices in place at Hillside can be seen at any elementary school in the district. Teachers often go through professional development side-by-side at the district level, and administrators are in the habit of sharing best practices with one another. So a blue ribbon for one Niskayuna school is a point of pride for them all.
“This is a Niskayuna education,” Fasciglione said.