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  • by Blaine Helwig

A Strong Foundation is Essential – Or the Academic Tower Leans

During my seven year career designing multi-million dollar state and federal highway bridges in Texas, I was the lead registered professional structural engineer on more than fifty structures. Bridges appear to rise vertically to great heights and magically stand erect, but underneath these structures lies a buried hidden mass of reinforced concrete footings and piles pressed to bedrock – holding up all that is seen above ground. That hidden part of the bridge is its foundation, and its function is absolutely essential. If there is any doubt, Google the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’ – and read about the structure. The tower clearly illustrates the effects of a foundational issue.

I possess Texas public education certifications in high school physics, mathematics and economics, but I spent my public school teaching and administrative career working in elementary schools. It is not that unusual, if you consider my reference to the “Leaning Tower of Pisa.” If the child’s academic education is not founded well, the middle and high school years will be precariously leaning at varying angles. Leaning is telegraphing looming collapse! The elementary foundational years are absolutely essential.

The elementary education years are the child’s academic foundation. The child will spend either twelve or thirteen total years in public school depending on whether they attended prekindergarten or not. Approximately half of those years are spent in elementary school. The difference in the ages of a kindergartner and a fifth grader is roughly the same as the difference in ages between a fifth grader and a senior in high school. Elementary school is the foundation. If it is not constructed correctly, when students leave elementary school after fifth grade, the probability of righting the past seven years in middle and high school is not high.

Can the academic leaning be righted?

But, what can be done? Start with the problem. The academic foundational issues must be addressed in the elementary school years.

In fact, the definition of the word ‘elementary’ means relating to the rudimentary aspects of a subject. The problem is also elementary. Children are not learning the fundamentals, well. They are not mastering the most rudimentary skills of the curriculum. As they move to the next elementary grade level, they do so without a solid foundation, and the academic tower begins its lean as far down as the elementary primary grades.

Children of poverty are arriving to elementary school possessing an academic gap in basic language skills regardless of native home language. Their academic tower is in a ‘pre-lean’ for lack of a better descriptive phrase. This academic gap must be closed or it will widen. Stop-gap literacy resources in conjunction with structured phonics and balanced literacy rapidly accelerate and right this condition. But, the elementary school classrooms must operate with high levels of structure and routines to preserve instructional minutes and student time on task. As with literacy, a strong numeracy program beginning in first grade ensures mastery of math skills. Given high implementation, consistency and accountability, academic ground work is slowly and soundly established – school day after school day.

With a collective school wide effort using proven systems, resources and pedagogy, young children learn and master rudimentary skills. As these kids graduate elementary school and enter middle school, they are adequately prepared for further vertical, upward growth since their academic foundation was properly constructed.

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