New school year opens door to promising success of kindergartners

Few people are more excited about the start of the school year than parents of kindergartners and first graders.

Mary Olson

Mary Olson

The first day of kindergarten seems to be a true rite of passage for youngsters. To many families it signals the subtle beginning of the separation from parents that occurs gradually throughout childhood as children gain more and more independence.

So important is this milestone that some moms and dads photograph or videotape their offspring getting on the school bus in the morning and then they race to school so they can photograph their children getting off the bus and going into the school building.

In the eyes of parents, it is probably second in importance only to graduation from high school.

Being prepared for kindergarten is more important now than it was 10 or 15 years ago because expectations for what students need to learn in kindergarten are so much higher. Students need to meet tougher standards by the end of the year to be ready for the work of first grade.

We know that children who have a quality preschool experience to prepare them for kindergarten are more likely to do well in kindergarten and meet the readiness benchmarks for first grade. Unfortunately, youngsters from families that are struggling financially don’t always have that opportunity. That’s why we have invested money in providing a free kindergarten readiness preschool program for four-year-olds from families who meet income guidelines or are learning to speak English.

Last year we expanded that program from three to eight schools, more than doubling its capacity. Many of the children who started in the program last fall were behind other children their age, but by the end of the year nearly all met or exceeded expectations for entering kindergarten.

In addition to providing the free kindergarten readiness preschool program, we have been providing materials to help support preschool parents as they prepare their children for school.

We created a series of very short videos (available on the district website) to show parents how they can help their children learn important skills such as holding and using a pencil, naming and recognizing letters, counting up to 20 and back from five and more.

(Videos and more information are available at www.anoka.k12.mn.us/kindergarten.)

We have also expanded all-day-every-day kindergarten at schools where students have the greatest need to give students more time to master the skills they need.

This year, we will have all-day-every-day kindergarten in 16 of our 24 schools. Thanks to new funding from the state Legislature that kicks in next year, we will have all-day-every-day kindergarten in all elementary schools beginning in fall 2014.

We are very pleased the Legislature and governor made kindergarten a priority because the research is so clear that kindergarten success is linked to success later in school.

Our experience shows us that students who meet all the benchmarks for kindergarten will meet the benchmarks for grade three, and grade three is really a watershed year.

If students are on track with key benchmarks by the end of grade three, they will likely graduate from high school and be prepared for college or other post-secondary education. If they are not on track by the end of grade three, it will be very difficult for them to catch up.

We are pleased to report that our assessment results showed that the number of students meeting those kindergarten benchmarks improved in all but three of our elementary schools and in some schools, the improvement was dramatic.

Over the past year, the staff leading our programs for preschoolers and those leading elementary programs have worked collaboratively to ensure they are aligned from preschool through grade three.

That doesn’t sound revolutionary, but it is. In fact, other schools districts are coming to us to learn how we did it.

In most school districts, preschool is quite separate and distinct from kindergarten; it is operated by the community education department in isolation from K-12 education. And in K-12 education, kindergarten has often been seen as quite separate from the grades. It has been considered by some to be simply an opportunity for students to learn to get along with each other and become accustomed to the structures of school before the real work of school begins in grade one.

We believe our new alignment charts a course for our students that sets them on the path for success.

We are looking forward to meeting this year’s kindergarten class, and all students, as they join us on that first week September.

Until then, enjoy the last days of summer vacation!

Mary Olson is director of communication and public relations for Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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