is making quite a name for himself. Some four years after the cartoon frog made
his debut at a North Side Pittsburgh Public School as the face of kindergarten
transition, the model for easing children into their school careers has spread
across the city, and school districts in other Pennsylvania counties, New York
and Ohio, have shown interest in adopting some or all of its components.
Driving the popularity of Ready
Freddy Pathways To Kindergarten Success is its record of successfully rallying
communities around school readiness and significantly raising first-day
kindergarten attendance in neighborhoods where only a fraction of the eligible
children had typically turned out for the start of classes.
"We had such good outcomes in the
initial schools that there was an interest in seeing if we could do it again,
that this might be something that could be demonstrated district-wide," said
Ken Smythe-Leistico, who directs the project for the University of Pittsburgh
Office of Child Development (OCD).
First-day attendance tripled at the
first two schools that participated. In some years, as many as 100% of the
kindergarten-eligible children in the neighborhoods showed up for the first day
Such outcomes are the result of a
model that engages parents, teachers and school officials, agencies and others
in the neighborhood in making the transition to kindergarten as easy and
inviting as possible for young children and their families.
The initiative recognized the
importance of kindergarten transition when it began as a series of school
readiness projects funded by The Heinz Endowments and developed by OCD.
Research suggests that how children and their families make that transition is
influential in setting the tone for students’ participation and performance in
school well beyond kindergarten.
But the need to develop an all-out,
community-wide effort to boost enrollment and first-day attendance had not been
“We hadn’t thought about having to
back up and address enrollment,” said Smythe-Leistico. “We were looking at
school readiness for both children and parents. We thought about enrollment as
a procedure, a step initiating the transition process. We needed to know who
was coming to school to coordinate transition events for them. But the lists
generated by the schools were not accurate or complete. We didn’t realize it
would be such a challenge.”
Importance of Transition
Studies suggest that long-term
school success is associated with the quality of the transition children and
families make into kindergarten, which for many children living in low-income
neighborhoods is their first experience in a formal learning environment.
Students who attend schools that
employ a process that promotes a smooth transition to kindergarten, for
example, tend to have higher achievement test scores than students at schools
that lack transition practices. Such practices have also been found to be
important in reducing achievement gaps.
But many schools have not adopted
quality transition practices. In fact, research suggests the least likely
students to attend schools that employ such practices are low-income children.
Yet, they are at the greatest risk of school failure and tend to benefit the
most from a process that helps them adjust to the new experience of
Kindergarten transition can be
difficult for some children. Studies suggest nearly half of children nationwide
have some difficulty, such as general anxiety, trouble following directions and
not having some basic academic skills. It doesn’t help if they enroll late and
miss lessons taught to those classmates who started on time. Late enrollment
also burdens schools and teachers who must orient and reorient students who
trickle into the classrooms during the year.
The Ready Freddy model recognizes
that quality transition requires not only preparing young children to enter
kindergarten, but also the child’s parents or caregivers, for whom curricula
for doing so is sparse. Researchers report that strong parent involvement and a
positive relationship between home and school are two of the greatest
predictors of school success. And greater parent involvement, in particular, is
also associated with better school attendance.
The model also addresses the need to
create a supportive environment for children who are making the transition to
kindergarten by engaging school officials, teachers, churches, businesses,
agencies and others in the community as partners in the process.
The core components of the model
proved effective after four years of use with children entering kindergartens
in Pittsburgh Northview on the city’s North Side and Pittsburgh Weil and Miller
in the city’s Hill District neighborhood. Some modest adjustments have been
made based on lessons learned from those experiences and to allow for expansion
to other neighborhoods.
Those components include the
“K-Club” curriculum, which was developed to help parents and children get ready
for kindergarten together. It is divided into sessions, each having a theme
focused on a topic important to helping children transition to kindergarten
that includes a child activity, a parent activity, a parent-child interaction
activity and a take-home activity.
Child-only activities give children
chances to interact with one another and expose them to the kinds of
experiences they’ll find in the classroom. Activities for parents provide
training to help them better understand the importance of kindergarten and
learn how to support their child’s education, such as how to build a
relationship with their child’s school and teachers. Parent-child activities
encourage quality parent-child interactions and promote school readiness in the
Offering such activities means
little if children and families don’t participate. Kindergarten is optional in
Pennsylvania, which tends to work against achieving full enrollment.
Kindergarten enrollment and
first-day attendance immediately increased to unprecedented levels in each of
the schools where it has used in Pittsburgh, despite the fact that early
education had not previously been widely embraced by families in the two
neighborhoods. For example, about 60% of children had never been enrolled in
preschool, Head Start, or other early learning programs prior to the Ready
First-day attendance jumped from
about 25% to 100% in the first year of the program in the schools. Such
profound improvement was seen as evidence of the effectiveness of
community-wide efforts organized as part of the Ready Freddy to raise awareness
of the importance of early education and help parents enroll their children in
kindergarten sooner rather than later.
A community transition team of
parents, teachers, principals, community leaders and others is created in each
neighborhood to guide those efforts. The team comes up with ideas specific to
their neighborhoods that will enhance early enrollment, acquaint children and their
families with their schools and reduce anxiety among children entering
kindergarten. Such projects have included school tours, free hair braiding and
haircuts, books packets for the children, backpacks given to those who enroll
early, making the first day of kindergarten a community celebration and putting
the Ready Freddy image on pizza boxes to remind parents of enrollment
One of the first tasks is to
identify kindergarten-eligible children in the neighborhood, which includes
door-to-door canvassing by volunteers. The effectiveness of partnering with
agencies familiar with the neighborhood was one of the lessons learned in the
past few years. Their knowledge of the families with kindergarten-aged children
has helped identify significant numbers of children, reducing the canvassing
Another adjustment has been to shift
management responsibilities of the transition program from OCD staff to local
school-based transition teams. Under this strategy, first-day attendance has
been sustained at about 75% of eligible children, a slight decline from earlier
first-day attendance outcomes, but still three times greater than what
attendance had been prior to the intervention.
The shift in responsibility was
necessary to accommodate expansion, said Smythe-Leistico. “We had only two
staff on the ground, so we couldn’t run teams that are OCD-based in the new
schools. Furthermore, for sustainability these teams had to be imbedded in the
school. That’s when we went to a train-the-trainer model.”
Freddy’s Popularity Grows
In the fall of 2011, Ready Freddy
Pathways To Kindergarten Success expanded across the city to include schools in
the West End, Homewood and South Side. Schools in the Hill District that
previously used the program were retained. And although the first school to use
the model, Pittsburgh Northview, was slated to close and another school in the
city’s North Side neighborhood was added to the roster.
In addition, the Grable Foundation,
Buhl Foundation and Birmingham Foundations joined the Heinz Endowments as
funders of the program.
The program has also begun to
explore more effective ways to sustain attendance throughout the year in light
of studies that suggest only 17% of students who are chronically absent in
kindergarten are reading at grade level in the third grade. “We couldn’t walk
away,” said Smythe-Leistico. “So we started looking at strategies that are
being used nationally to improve kindergarten attendance.”
New year-round attendance strategies
include improving parent-teacher communication and monitoring the attendance of
all children in the program to identify those who consistently miss school so
schools can move more quickly to help those children attend more regularly.
Recently, the Ready Freddy model has
received national attention, which, in turn, has fueled interest in the
transition strategy across Pennsylvania and state lines. In March, the Harvard
University Family Research Project’s Family Involvement Network of Educators
identified Smythe-Leistico as an emerging leader in the field and featured the
Ready Freddy program on its website. In addition, a journal article was
published about the project authored by Smythe-Leistico, OCD Co-Director Robert
McCall and Colleen Young, OCD projects manager.
Today, OCD is partnering with
Pennsylvania school districts in York, Lebanon, Lancaster, Bedford, Wyoming,
Beaver and Dauphin counties to adopt aspects of the Reddy Freddy model in their
Schools in Youngstown, Ohio,
Fredericksburg, Va. and Detroit, Mich. have also expressed interest. And next
year, OCD will work with schools in Buffalo, N.Y., where a pilot project to
adopt the entire Ready Freddy model in five schools will begin as the first
stage of a plan to extend it to all 40 of schools in the district the following
The Buffalo project will be the
first opportunity to study the transition model as implemented across an entire
school district. It also offers a chance to examine attendance practices
underway in Buffalo that are not currently used in Pittsburgh schools and to
share data that will provide insight into how the Ready Freddy model performs
in different cities.
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