At the beginning of each new school year, I am always amazed at how tiny the incoming kindergartners are. As I see them walk through the doors of Paul Saylor Elementary with their disproportionately large backpacks and broad smiles, I am taken with the importance of the moment.
Today truly is the first day of the rest of their lives. So much will change. Their minds will begin to explode with new ideas and ways of understanding the world. Some of them skip down the hall like they have been coming to school for years, while others are clearly overwhelmed and wary of this new experience. For some of our students, this may be the first time they have been exposed to a school setting. This can be a stressful experience for them, especially if they have not had practice with separating from family members or allowing other caring adults to help them.
Kindergarten teachers can generally tell very quickly which students have had preschool experience. When a child attends preschool, he or she has the advantage of learning “how to be a student”. Spending time in a structured setting with teachers and other children while having opportunities to learn, share, and follow directions builds a foundation for the lifelong love of learning. For example, during group activities such as circle time, children learn to pay attention to the teacher, listen to others, and wait their turn to talk. For a child who has never been to preschool, a place with many new rules and procedures can seem strange and even scary. If a student begins kindergarten without basic skills in place, they can quickly fall behind their peers in achievement.
Parents and educators tend to be in agreement that preschool education helps children to enter kindergarten ready to thrive with the social, cognitive, motor, and communication skills they need. Still, in 2012, nearly half of the incoming kindergartners at Saylor Elementary had no preschool experience. The fact is, when families are struggling to make ends meet, preschool becomes cost-prohibitive. Since we are a society that believes in equality, it would make sense that all children, regardless of income, should have access to high-quality preschool programs.
In an effort to level the playing ground for our students, we began to brainstorm ways to connect with our future students and families before they enter kindergarten. In 2010, we began a partnership with Parents As Teachers of Porter County. Parents As Teachers is an early childhood, parenting and family education program that provides one-on-one guidance and support to parents who are interested in making sure their birth-to-five year old children are ready for success. Their mission is to help families through parent education, early literacy coaching, and family support. PAT was able to write a grant that allowed them to provide personal one-on-one visits to families in our district. They also developed parent/child workshops that were held at our school to help further engage parents in taking an active role in their child’s education.
In 2011, Jill Stricker, Executive Director of PAT of Porter County, approached us about the possibility of PAT writing another grant to fund a kindergarten readiness program at Saylor that would target students with little or no preschool experience who would begin kindergarten the following year. I am pleased to say the Porter County Community Foundation approved the request, and we now have a “Ready, Set, Kindergarten!” program in our building.
Parents As Teachers educators teach a morning and afternoon session of the kindergarten readiness program on Thursdays in a classroom that is set up just like a typical kindergarten room. Each week, they practice the skills they will need to be successful students. They begin their day with calendar and circle time, moving on to different learning centers. They sing songs, learn nursery rhymes, and have a chance to practice listening skills during story time. Imagine the difference this can make for our young students.
Next year, when this “Ready, Set, Kindergarten! “class enters the building on the first day of school; they will be the ones who will skip down the hallway with the confidence of an experienced student.