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.
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
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.
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
“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
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
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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