Inspiring Okeechobee: Kindergarten Krew is something special

OKEECHOBEE — At South Elementary School, the kindergarteners have something that not every kindergarten student is lucky enough to have. They have a unique group of teachers who not only love their job and their students, but they also really like each other and have fun working together and sharing ideas. This not only makes their job easier but also makes it more enjoyable. The kids can see it too. When the teachers are happy about being in class, the kids are happy about being in class.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
South Elementary School’s Kindergarten Krew love working with the kids and with each other. Pictured left to right are Jennifer Burk, Josh, Van Wormer, Gabby Cox, Katie Stephens, Laurie Raulerson Stephen and Markita Smith. “If only all kindergartens were as ‘ghoul’ as ours,” they laughed.

Teachers Gabby Cox, Katie Stephens, Josh Van Wormer, Laurie Raulerson Stephen and Markita Smith are the Kindergarten Krew, and they each have a part to play on their team. They each have their own flavors, said Josh, and they all work together. He said everyone is so positive, and he really enjoys that about the team. They build each other up.

Laurie is originally from Okeechobee. She got into teaching as a career change. She loves kids and loves teaching. This is her fourth year as a teacher. She started out with second grade the first year and has been in kindergarten ever since.

Gabby is originally from Costa Rica. She lived in Omaha, Neb. when she first came to this country, and she misses it very much. She misses the seasons. She came to Okeechobee when Ms. McAllister, the principal of Central Elementary School gave her the opportunity to come here and teach a bilingual program. Unfortunately, when she arrived, it was more English than Spanish, but Ms. McAllister trusted her and it worked out. Then the program ended and she found herself at South Elementary. Teaching is her passion. She still works in some Spanish even though the bilingual program ended, and she loves being a part of the Kindergarten Krew.

Markita Smith is from Brady, Texas. They moved here when her husband’s military career ended because he is from Okeechobee. She originally went to culinary school and was a baker but there were no jobs for that here, so she decided on a career change and went with teaching. She began as a substitute and then took a job as a long-term sub and really liked it, so now she is teaching kindergarten.

Katie Stephens has lived in Okeechobee since she was 8 years old. Originally, she worked in child welfare. She loved working with families and children, but once she had children of her own, she wanted a job that didn’t keep her out so late at night and on the weekends, so she became a teacher, and she absolutely loves it. She loves kindergarten and the age group. “They are so much fun,” she said.

Jennifer Burk is from Okeechobee and this is her tenth year as a teacher. She previously taught second grade, and she liked that a lot. “I think I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. Her mom used to teach preschool in a home daycare. That was how she was able to stay home with her children. When she taught preschool, Jennifer was always her helper, so she feels like she was kind of destined to be a teacher. When she was in high school, she was really into music and thought she might want to be a music teacher, but she enjoys teaching all subjects and once she got into college realized she wanted to do that rather than focus on one specific area. After she graduated, she took a job as a long-term sub to get into a classroom, and that turned into a teaching position in second grade. She taught second grade for five years and then transferred down to kindergarten. She loves it. She loves the age group and thinks it is a lot of fun.

Josh Van Wormer is originally from Wisconsin and moved to Okeechobee 14 years ago. He has taught at South Elementary all 14 years. He met his wife there, had his kids there. Believes he is now an “Okeechobeean.” The rest of the Kindergarten Krew joked he is the “King of South Elementary.” He has always liked working with kids. He had done camps and things like that, and it sparked a passion for teaching. He has taught kindergarten through third grade. This is his second year teaching kindergarten. He moved down to kindergarten last year when his son started school. South had no kindergarten teachers at all for that year. They all left, so they created a new team, and he loves the new team. A few years ago when he was teaching first grade, he was considered a highly effective teacher, and they needed a highly effective teacher in third grade, but the teacher in that class left in the middle of the year. The school was going to move Josh to that class, but the parents were so upset they stormed the school board, and he was allowed to stay in his class. The support from the parents really made him feel good. “We try to build a community here, and when you are successful at that, you are going to feel support.”

The Kindergarten Krew works together to help their students. Students come to them with all different levels and abilities and as they progress through the year they see some of them need a little more time and practice on certain skills so as they move forward with the rest of the group, they take the kids who need extra practice and divide them amongst themselves. So, one teacher might be working on beginning sounds, and students from all the classes who need help with beginning sounds would go to that teacher. If there are more than a few, then the teacher would schedule a lesson in their own class. The goal is for all of the kids to be reading by the end of kindergarten. It’s so easy to get behind, and they want to help them get as far as they can. This is where the trust for each member of the Kindergarten Krew comes in, they said. You are trusting that other teacher to fill that gap, because they are each sending their “babies” to the other teacher to get something, and they are sending theirs in return. “We have to really believe in each other to do this,” said Jennifer.

Another important job of the kindergarten teacher is parent support, said Gabby. They have what is called APTT (Academic Parent Teacher Team) where the teacher and parents work together as a team. Gabby has 18 kids in her class and was disappointed when only six parents attended the meeting she scheduled last week. Two of the 12 who didn’t come sent a note explaining why they couldn’t make it, but she never heard from the others. They do all reach out to the parents and try to have parent teacher conferences though, said Josh. “We do reach out.”

“Sometimes it’s as simple as a phone call letting the parents know their child is making progress, not just academically but behaviorally or socially,” said Jennifer.

The teachers also work on behavior and social skills to help the children progress through their academic career. Social emotional learning is an important part of their learning right now. They work on character traits like kindness. They begin their day with a morning meeting and give the kids a chance to buddy up with another student they might not know, so they can get to know each other. They teach them how to get to know new people, how to greet them, have a conversation, find things in common with each other, accomplish challenges, and just get to know each other. Usually by the end of the week, they have a new friend.

Jennifer and Markita always have the great creative, crafty ideas, everyone agreed. Katie is the hilarious one of the group and keeps them all laughing non-stop. Gabby is always wanting to take their picture. Laurie always has everyone’s back. There is never drama on their team. They actually like each other and coming to work each day. They share ideas. They aren’t competitive. Laurie is known for going into Jennifer’s room and spotting some great idea and saying, “Oh! I’m stealing that.” But Jennifer is OK with that. They all are. That’s why they are the Kindergarten Krew. They are a team.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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