Rallying Behind A Frog Named Freddy, Neighborhoods Embrace Kindergarten
The following article was published in the October 2009 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

Kindergarten in two City of Pittsburgh low-income neighborhoods isn’t the same anymore. By all accounts, that is a good thing.

As recently as two years ago, for example, as few as 25% of the children who during the year would enroll in kindergarten actually attended the first day of class at the Pittsburgh Public Schools Northview Heights Accelerated Learning Academy and the Weil Accelerated Learning Academy in the Hill District. This year, first-day attendance reached 90% and 83% respectively at both schools.

In Northview Heights, kindergarten enrollment last year exceeded school district projections, requiring school officials to add another kindergarten classroom.

In past years, many parents in Northview Heights and the Hill District were unaware of their school’s kindergarten enrollment dates, who their children’s teachers would be or how they could help smooth their child’s transition to kindergarten. Now, they are an integral part of that transition and most have met the teacher before their children enter school.

And in the Hill District, the first day of kindergarten has become a community celebration with balloons, food, fanfare, teachers, principals, community leaders and a frog named Ready Freddy greeting new kindergartners and their parents when they arrive at school.

This new embrace of kindergarten is the result of the work of local agencies, parents, public school officials, community leaders and others who have rallied around Pathways To School Success, a series of grant-supported projects developed by the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (OCD) to intensify school readiness efforts in low-income neighborhoods.

"Our work is to help people be aware of the importance of the transition to kindergarten," said Laurie Mulvey director of the OCD Division of Service Demonstrations. “It’s a great time because parents are positive, children are positive and it’s a chance to get a positive start.”

Research suggests quality kindergarten transition predicts long-term school success. In a recent national study of kindergarten children in 992 schools, students in schools with transition practices scored higher on student achievement tests on average than those attending schools where kindergarten transition was not practiced. Researchers also found evidence to suggest kindergarten transition practices may play a vital role in reducing achievement gaps.

However, the research also noted that the same low-income children who are at the greatest risk of school failure and would benefit the most from kindergarten transition are also the least likely to attend schools with transition processes.

Focus on School Readiness

The first project under “Pathways To School Success” was the Centers of Excellence funded with a grant from The Heinz Endowments. Launched in 2007, the project sought to intensify the school readiness practices of family support centers in the city’s Northview Heights and Hill District neighborhoods. Children in these neighborhoods attend one of the eight Accelerated Learning Academies in the Pittsburgh Public Schools that offer longer school days, special curriculum and other features to help raise academic achievement among low-income students.

Kindergarten transition emerged as an important issue while researching ways to ramp-up school readiness. Traditionally, school readiness literature focuses on academic readiness, but does not focus on family and child readiness.

However, for many children, kindergarten represents their first experience with formal education outside of the home; for others, it means getting to know new teachers, new friends, a new building, and a new set of rules. The transition sets the tone for how well children will do in school, but almost half of children who start kindergarten have difficulty with the transition Without proper transitions, children can experience high levels of anxiety and exhibit “early and persistent school failure, behavior problems, low levels of parent involvement, and a widening gap in their academic achievement.”

In addition to child readiness, there was also a lack of information to increase parent readiness. In other words, there was a need for a way to prepare the whole family. “There weren’t parent-child curriculums that would help parents as well as children get ready for school,” said Ken Smythe-Leistico, director of Pathways To School Success. “There are some curriculums that help parents get their children ready for school, but we felt there was a need for families to get ready, especially families who are having their first child go to school.”

The project’s “K-Club” curriculum was developed to help parents and children get ready for kindergarten together. The curriculum is divided into six sessions. Each session has a different theme focusing on a topic important to helping children transition to kindergarten. Every session includes a child activity, a parent activity, a parent-child interaction activity and a take-home activity.

The child-only activity offers children opportunities to interact with one another and exposes them to the kinds of experiences they’ll encounter in the classroom. Parent-only activities provide parents with training to help them better understand the importance of kindergarten and help them earn the tools necessary to support their child’s education, such as how to build a relationship with their child’s school and teachers. The parent-child activity encourages quality parent-child interactions and models activities that promote school readiness in the home.

The vast majority of literature supports the notion that parent involvement is a key component to school success. Studies show that strong parent involvement and a positive relationship between home and school are two of the greatest predictors of school success. The Pathways To School Success projects focus on finding ways to encourage schools to engage parents before school starts and to teach parents

to support learning in the home.

Focusing on early and positive parent engagement during the transition to kindergarten shapes the type of relationship that families and schools will have from that point forward. This is important because the quality of this relationship determines how parents will be involved with their child’s school.

Increased parent involvement is also closely associated with better school attendance. One study of early school absence reports that elementary school attendance increased and chronic absenteeism fell among schools that actively involved families and communities using positive activities and communication strategies. In turn, early school attendance positively impacts achievement scores and reduces future drop out rates. In a national study, children with better rates of attendance in kindergarten had higher scores in reading, math and general knowledge at the end of 1st grade. Similarly, students who are absent during early elementary years miss critical components of basic learning. If they are behind by the 3rd grade, they will need extra help and are at greater risk for dropping out.

Rallying Community Support

One of the factors working against full kindergarten enrollment and steady attendance is the fact that kindergarten is optional in Pennsylvania. And in the Northview Heights and Hill District neighborhoods, early education hasn’t been a widely shared experience. In fact, project staff found that up to 60% of children in those neighborhoods had never been enrolled in preschool, Head Start, or any other early learning programs.

Such factors put a premium on raising awareness of the importance of kindergarten, finding kindergarten-bound children and encouraging their parents to enroll them early enough to attend on the first day.

To help with this, a community transition team was created. Research indicates that school-implemented strategies are more effective when there is a partnership between schools, families and communities. Assembling a collaborative team made up of parents, teachers, principals, local agencies and community leaders proved a vital strategy. Another key strategy was adopting a mascot – a cartoon-like frog named “Ready Freddy” – that became the widely recognized face of the project.

One of the first tasks was identifying all of the kindergarten-eligible children. In Northview Heights, parents were hired to accompany project staff as they canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on the doors of more than 276 households to find children eligible for kindergarten, and encouraging their parents to enroll them in kindergarten and to participate in K-Club and other transition activities offered to incoming kindergartners and their families.

The community team generated ideas for neighborhood relevant activities to enhance kindergarten enrollment. Strategies were designed to both reduce anxiety and increase awareness. Successful ideas that helped acquaint children and their families with their classroom, teacher and principal included offering school tours and free hair braiding and haircuts at the Northview Heights Accelerated Learning Academy. Another was to remind parents of enrollment deadlines by putting the Ready Freddy image on pizza boxes delivered in the neighborhood. Agencies pooled their resources to support the cause and to provide families with materials needed for school: Ready Freddy backpacks were given to children who enrolled early and, through “Beginning With Books”, book packets were purchased for children who enrolled in kindergarten.

“Once all of the children are found, the idea is to find creative, fun activities to draw them to the school. And when children come to the school for the activity, make sure they are enrolled, they have a book bag, they meet their teacher – that they feel welcome. This starts the relationship between the teacher, child and parent that the literature tells us is so important,” said Mulvey.

The result was first-day kindergarten attendance that was unprecedented in the school. Both Northview Heights kindergarten classrooms were full on the first day of class. And there was a surprise in store for school officials. “They anticipated 44 children in kindergarten, but even more came after the first day, probably because of the outreach effort,” said Smythe-Leistico. “They ended up with about 60 children and had to add a third kindergarten class.”

In addition, parents participating in the K-Club overwhelmingly found the curriculum helpful and they showed greater involvement in their children’s education and their school, as measured by increased attendance at PSCC meetings, school events and record attendance at parent-teacher conferences. One parent said, “It prepared me to see what my child would be facing so that anything she didn’t grasp there I could help her with.”

Ready Freddy, the K-Clubs, community transition teams and other aspects of the Centers for Excellence project were replicated the following year in the Hill District with similar outcomes.

“We found it was necessary to do more than just help the individual child get ready for school,” Mulvey said. “It took a community approach to school readiness – raising awareness of the importance of school readiness, focusing on the period just prior to kindergarten and creating a community effort to get families feeling positive about enrolling their children in school.”

That lesson led to a second grant-supported project under the “Pathways To School Success” umbrella known as “Communities of Excellence”, which began this year with additional funding from The Heinz Endowments.

A Broader Initiative

“Communities of Excellence” builds on the strategies and activities developed in the Centers for Excellence project – including Ready Freddy, K-Clubs and community transition teams – with an eye toward expanding them throughout the entire community. In the Hill District neighborhood, efforts are expanding to include all elementary schools and engage a broader base of stakeholders, including the faith-based community.

In addition, stakeholders are being invited to share more of the responsibilities of the school readiness initiative. The idea is to teach the parent-child school readiness curriculum to parent groups and other community stakeholders so they can implement it throughout the Hill District.

One of the first activities, “Hands Across the Hill,” turned a routine first day of school for kindergarten students into a community event. Ready Freddy was on hand, as were community leaders, church leaders, teachers, school officials and other stakeholders. “The community planned this,” Mulvey said. “A lot of agencies worked together on it, community leaders, the faith-based community. It wasn’t just the transition team saying welcome to school. It was the Hill District saying we care about our children. That’s how these kids started kindergarten.”

In Northview Heights, a grant from the United Way of Allegheny County supports Communities of Excellence project by hiring “kindergarten liaisons” to continue with outreach and K-Clubs, and to provided year long communication between parents and the school. These liaisons, who are affiliated with the neighborhood family support center, work with kindergarten families to provide guidance, support and help to make sure children attend school regularly. “Our job now is to make that model effective and efficient as possible, show outcomes, and demonstrate that it can be brought to scale and used in other communities,” Mulvey said.


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