How suburban schools get kids ready for kindergarten
How suburban districts are getting kids kindergarten-ready
Gone are the days when knowing your ABCs and how to count from one to 10 was enough preparation for kindergarten.
Educators say children today need not only basic reading and math skills but also the social and emotional skills to navigate their most critical developmental stage. And many are falling short of the mark.
Many suburban school districts are intervening, in part by helping parents better prepare their children for learning through play.
"Kindergarten readiness starts at birth," said Stephanie Farrelly, principal of the Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200. "We are really looking at a paradigm shift."
A key measure of kindergarten readiness is whether children can master five key concepts: Talk, play, read, write and do.
"These are five areas that if parents work with their child, they can provide a good basic foundation for children for when they enter school," said Peggy Ondera, director of early learner initiatives for Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest school district.
There, roughly 60 percent of students entering kindergarten are not meeting this readiness benchmark, often because they come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds or face language barriers, Ondera said.
Children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, according to one study.
"By the time kids are 3, we will already see a 30 million word gap between families that are actively engaged and talking with their child and others (that don't)," Ondera said. "That's when the brain develops the fastest. If we miss those opportunities, we're going to see children that are not progressing as far as they might."
Child's first teacher
U-46 offers several programs to combat the problem. In 2011, the district launched its "Give Me Five!" initiative for pre-kindergarteners by reinforcing those five key concepts.
Community liaisons provide support and professional development for teachers at day-care centers and preschools. Ten parent educators also make bi-weekly to monthly home visits, teaching parents simple techniques and activities to foster development in children up to 3 years old.
"Parents need to understand that they are their child's first teacher," Ondera said. "Just doing some of those simple things of talking with their child (about) what's happening around them, playing pretend with them, reading books to them, all make a huge difference in the development of the child."
Kindergarten readiness is as much about the social and emotional development of the child, as it is about academics, said Farrelly, also executive committee chairwoman for the district's Early Childhood Collaborative.
Children need to learn self-awareness and regulation, the importance of getting along with peers, working cooperatively, sharing, maintaining self-control, and using their words, she said.
"It is so much more than the ABCs," Farrelly said. "That children can express themselves verbally, make themselves understood -- it is a critical skill when you are looking at kindergarten success."
The collaborative focuses on identifying gaps within the community and creating solutions for barriers such as language, socio-economic factors and access. It supports play-to-learn activities, in partnership with the DuPage Children's Museum and often hosted at local libraries and schools, through which parents can learn how to play with their children so they learn key skills, Farrelly said.
"We are looking at how can we bring those supports and services to the families in our community instead of always making them travel to receive those (services)," she said. "We are also doing developmental screening and taking it to those identified locations. We have coordinated efforts with early intervention agencies ... so when a child approaches 3 years of age, there is already communication between a parent and those agencies."
In December, suburban school districts were awarded federal grants of $80 million for four years to expand access to full-day preschool services for 4-year-olds in 18 communities.
District 200 will serve 60 more at-risk children this fall with the grant funding in partnership with Metropolitan Family Services, which offers a Head Start program serving students within the district, and KinderCare.
Two of the preschool programs will be at Jefferson Early Childhood Center, and a third will be offered at KinderCare in Winfield.
U-46 will receive about $2.4 million yearly, allowing the district to educate 200 high-needs 4-year-olds starting this fall. The district also will provide transportation for students whose families can't bring them to school, Ondera said.
Children who go through preschool typically are better prepared for kindergarten, educators say.
Roughly 1,500 students are enrolled in U-46's preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds offered at 12 sites, two early learning centers, and at some of its 40 elementary schools. Yet, only about a third of the district's kindergarten students come through its preschool programs, Ondera said.
Drop-in programs are one way the district tries to recruit more children into preschool. Any district parent and a child 5 or younger can walk in and join a preschool play group at various schools. In another drop-in program, a teacher goes into low-income neighborhoods or housing projects once a week to recruit students.
U-46 also is pursuing funding sources, either through grants or community support, to purchase a bus that could be retrofitted to serve as a mobile preschool classroom. Teachers could do developmental screenings of children on-site, and the bus could also serve as a lending library, Ondera said.
"It would allow us to take the bus into some of those harder-to-reach neighborhoods where perhaps transportation is a challenge for the parents," Ondera said. "(We're) trying to overcome some of those barriers that parents might face in accessing some of our services. If parents can't come to us, we're going to go to them."
Color outside lines
Barrington Unit District 220 has been providing early intervention for at-risk populations for years, yet never tracked kindergarten readiness, said Becky Gill, director of elementary curriculum.
Starting this fall, the district will roll out an extended-day kindergarten enrichment program. Its core kindergarten program, serving about 450 students, will remain half day focusing on literacy, math and science. Parents can choose to let their children stay for the extended-day enrichment, involving creative, inventive activities and discovery play.
"We want to strike a balance between the academic needs of students and that creative component," Gill said. "The focus is on the whole child, finding any gaps early on and addressing them quickly, but also making sure students have a core academic program, along with creativity and social interaction."
Early childhood education sets the stage for children to become deep thinkers and problem solvers, capable of creating and being innovative, said Irma Bates, principal of Sunny Hill Elementary School in Carpentersville.
Sunny Hill offers an extended-day kindergarten program for at-risk students. Half of the students don't speak English as their native language, while 94 percent of students come from low-income families. The school also has a large number of students with developmental delays, Bates said.
With these challenges, the extended-day kindergarten allows teachers to spend more time on language development, engage students through hands-on learning, reading and writing workshops, and provide native language instruction in literacy and math, Bates said.
"We're preparing students for roles in the future that we haven't even identified yet," Bates said. "They have to be effective communicators, technology savvy ... that is probably our biggest challenge, preparing our 5-year-olds to be college and career ready. It is about coloring outside of the lines. You can no longer say it's just about basic education or as simple as the three Rs."