Early childhood education prep key to future success
Forming two straight lines was no easy task for the gaggle of 4- and 5-year-olds eager to take what was — for many — their first school bus ride.
But Derry Area School District’s youngest learners did their best to keep formation as they boarded the bus amid a spontaneous April rain shower. They wiggled two-by-two into seats, ready for a lap around the school grounds and a morning-long introduction to a day in the life of a kindergartner.
They gasped, giggled and squealed. Whispers of “This is so cool!” echoed throughout the bus.
There also were tears, with some kids not happy about being away from Mom and Dad.
“Separating them on such a negative note is not such a great way to start their school career,” said Kristine Higgs, principal of Grandview Elementary School.
Kindergarten Shadowing Day serves as a dress rehearsal for the first day of school. It’s a chance to practice the routine before students embark on the 13-year journey to high school graduation.
As the academic year comes to a close, districts across the region are holding events to make sure incoming students are equipped with the academic and social skills needed to for kindergarten and beyond — as numerous studies have found preschool preparation important for future success in academics and life.
Franklin Regional holds several story times for parents and students throughout the school year. The kindergarten transition culminates in orientation events to give parents and students the chance to get to know their school, teachers and routine before class starts.
Greater Latrobe, Jeannette City, Greensburg Salem, Kiski Area and Penn-Trafford also hold kindergarten preparation events, ranging from reading nights at students’ future elementary schools to workshops for parents.
The goal is to provide parents and incoming kindergartners as many opportunities as possible to meet their teachers and principals and to feel comfortable in their new school, said Christine Ross, principal at North Primary School in the Kiski Area School District. She estimated that about 60 percent of Kiski’s incoming kindergartners attend some form of preschool.
“It’s just really important to build those connections with the families early on and just make sure they start their schooling in a positive environment,” Ross said.
The district holds several kindergarten readiness events, starting with a family science night in February. While students participated in a science activity, parents met with principals to learn about the kindergarten transition process. That’s followed by a family reading event in April, when students have another chance to read and do activities with their new principals, while parents get tips on how to practice skills such as recognizing letters and their sounds from the district’s reading specialists.
“We’re seeing a difference in how kids are ready, where they’re at,” Ross said. “Just having some of the basic knowledge and information that we’d like them to have.”
The Allegheny Intermediate Unit this month attracted more than 300 children under the age of 8 and their families to a “family fun night,” its fifth annual evening of activities including games, music, arts and crafts, and reading groups. The event focused on bringing families together and emphasizing the importance of conversation between parents and children, while also introducing children to the fundamental skills they will need, said Catherine Lobaugh, assistant executive director for early childhood, family and community services. The evening also helps families connect with preschool programs and early intervention services for students with special learning needs.
Experts agree that these programs can — and should — serve both parents and children. Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College, said events such as story time can serve as a community hub for young parents who benefit from the support of teachers and other parents.
“It’s just as important to the parents’ well-being as it is to the children’s well-being,” Li said.
Preparing all children for school remains a problem, however.
Statewide, about 64 percent, or 114,000 eligible children, did not have access to publicly funded programs, according to 2015-16 data from the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning. That figure was slightly higher in Westmoreland County — 65.5 percent — with Allegheny County having just more than half — 51.6 percent — of eligible children not having access to such programs.
“We used to be ahead of the game,” said Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, an organization that advocates for quality early childhood education throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. “We are no longer ahead of the game. In fact, we are behind.”
Studies have shown that children who start behind their peers stay at a disadvantage throughout schooling, said Karen Bierman, professor of psychology and human development at Penn State University.
“As more and more kids go to preschool, more kids are coming into kindergarten with more advanced skills than they used to have,” Bierman said.
But it’s not just about getting an early start on academics. Preschool years also are when students need to start developing soft skills that will help them later in life, such as cooperation and communication or knowing how to manage their emotions and learn from their mistakes.
As schools started to collect standardized testing data, it became apparent that some students weren’t meeting standards for reading and math by third grade — a point at which it is difficult to catch up.
And as jobs in today’s economy demand new, more technical skill sets, finding work after high school could depend on how prepared a student was for kindergarten.
“We have to reach down into the early years to make sure that we’re not creating a gap that cannot be overcome,” Bierman said.
Nationally, 75 percent of children from families with moderate to high incomes were prepared to enter kindergarten. That’s the case in fewer than half — 48 percent — of children from families living in poverty, according to the Brookings Institute .
Of the more than 23 million U.S. children younger than age, about 47 percent are classified as low-income.
Derry schools serve about 2,000 students living in rural and suburban communities. About 20 percent of them live in poverty.
District officials developed early childhood education programs after 70 percent of incoming kindergartners in 2011 scored basic or worse on screening exams — meaning a majority of incoming students were not prepared to start school. The district also found that students who attended preschool outperformed peers who did not.
To date, the district has invested about $92,000 in programs that serve students from birth to age 5. The programs, which are paid for with grant money, are free and open to all families.
In addition to events such as shadowing day, Derry offers evening story times, in-home tutoring and group instruction through its Teaching Tiny Trojans program, which serves about 80 students.
The district had 144 kindergartners in 2015, according to the state Department of Education.
Kindergarten screening data, which gauges students’ ability upon entering school, shows that the programs seem to be working. As of 2016, an average of 70 percent of incoming students scored proficient or advanced.
The district partners with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit and the United Way. It also works with preschool providers near Derry and in the greater Latrobe area to ensure students are exposed to curriculum that aligns with what will be expected of them in kindergarten and to include those students in program events.
Many providers also have slots for students eligible for Pre-K Counts or Head Start, though a lack of funding sometimes means there aren’t enough slots for students who need them.
What do students need to know?
Here are some skills students should know before they start kindergarten:
• Recognize letters, numbers, shapes and colors
• Count aloud to 25
• Spell and write their name
• Understand the main idea of a story
• Follow directions
• Participate in class discussions
• Adjust to changes in routine without fear
• Cooperate with classmates
Source: Derry Area School District website
State and federally funded programs are designed to give families who can’t afford private preschool access to high-quality, accredited programs. These serve families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is $72,900 for a family of four.
The state Office of Child Development and Early Learning recognizes both Allegheny and Westmoreland counties as areas with relatively high unmet need.
While funding is a statewide problem, families face other challenges. Even if they can secure a spot at a preschool, getting there can be an issue — especially in areas with poor public transportation.
In some cases, parents’ work schedules don’t match with preschool hours, and grandparents who don’t drive care for children during the day, said Amanda Barclay, an instructor with Derry’s Teaching Tiny Trojans program.
She also has worked with parents who simply didn’t know that preschool was an option, or who needed help connecting to available resources.
“Our ultimate goal is for our families to see us as a resource before their children even enter our school building,” said Barbie Jones, Early Childhood Liaison at Derry.
Michelle O’Hara of Derry Township enrolled her daughter, Harley, 4, in one of the district’s in-home tutoring programs after hearing about the math, reading and writing skills students are expected to master before starting kindergarten. She learned of these expectations after attending an evening story time, where the principal and other parents discussed academic and social skills students should know.
“I was shocked. I was scared,” O’Hara said.
She worried that her daughter, who did not attend preschool, would start school behind her classmates.
“I’m not a teacher. I have no idea what to do,” she said.
Now, O’Hara attends weekly tutoring sessions with her daughter and an instructor from the district. As Harley learns skills such as counting and recognizing numbers or writing her name, O’Hara learns how to replicate these lessons and help Harley practice on her own.
Other parents are getting an even earlier start on kindergarten preparation. Nicole Stanley of Blairsville brought her daughter Lila, 14 months, to a story time designed for children under 2.
Several times a year, the district’s high school library is taken over by the community’s youngest learners. The children have a chance to play, listen to a story and participate in activities — such as singing songs or nursery rhymes — with their parents.
Stanley said she brings her children because it is a chance for them to interact with other children. But it’s also a chance for her to get parenting tips from other parents.
“Unless you research it or hear it from other parents, sometimes you don’t have the best techniques,” she said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.
Paying for Pre-K programs
Gov. Tom Wolf in his budget proposal called for an extra $65 million for the state’s Pre-K Counts program and an additional $10 million for the Head Start Supplemental Assistance program, which would allow 8,400 more students to enroll in these publicly funded preschool programs. The most recent version of the state budget, passed this month by the House, cut Wolf’s proposals by $45 million and $5 million, respectively.
The House plan still increases early childhood education spending by $25 million over last year’s budget, said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Penn Township, who was honored Friday for his work on early childhood education issues by the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.
“There are pockets of poverty,” Dunbar said. “Pre-K is one of the gateways out of poverty.”
About eight in 10 of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in Dunbar’s district do not have access to publicly funded preschool programs, found a report released in December by the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit advocating for children’s health and education issues.