Ready, set, kindergarten
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
By Beverly Creamer
During a year of preschool in a rented church hall not far from their Wai'anae home, Lynissa Kealoha has watched her 5-year-old daughter LyRissa Dicion blossom into an avid reader so excited about starting kindergarten Aug. 1 she already has her bag packed.
"I get all excited when she comes home and reads," Kealoha said. "And then she'll play like she's the teacher to her sister. They have a breakthrough-to-literacy program, and every week she brings home a new book."
A lot of that comes from her experience at the Kamehameha preschool that turned her daughter into a child excited by the ability to write numbers, letters and her name, Kealoha said.
But it also comes from her parents, who have read to LyRissa, her little sister, LynZie, and her brother, Lopaka, since before they were born.
"He used to read to my stomach," Kealoha said of the children's father, Robert Dicion, who now reads to the little ones every night before bed.
LyRissa is prepared and excited about starting school, but many of her peers may not be. With a new school year just around the corner, there could be as many as 6,000 new kindergarten students who haven't attended preschool, Head Start, parent-participation preschools or other home-to-school transition programs that help prepare children for a successful school experience, according to Hawai'i early childhood experts.
Often the reason is not a lack of interest by parents, but a lack of enough available spaces in preschool programs.
When children miss out on early learning opportunities, they may start school one step behind, said Liz Chun, executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance.
"They're not ready for the tasks at hand, and they start by not feeling very good about themselves," Chun said. "Four out of every 10 children come into kindergarten not prepared and then they have to catch up, which very often doesn't lead to a good start for the child."
PREPARING FOR SUCCESS
Chun said studies have shown that children who have had the advantage of an early childhood program are more financially solvent as adults, more likely to be on their own, more likely to have a full-time job and have less interaction with the welfare system. They also are less likely to drop out of school.
"What we're trying to do now is increase the number of children who attend preschool or parent-participation preschools," Chun said. "As we realize we don't have enough preschool spaces, or the funding, the transition pieces have been important."
Several initiatives are under way to help increase the numbers of children in preschool, and the number of spaces. Funding increases in the past year by Gov. Linda Lingle have made it possible for another 1,000 low-income children to be subsidized to attend preschool.
Transition programs, often created as partnerships between preschools and elementary schools, are also scooping up hundreds more children and providing some readiness skills.
"More principals are directing their schools to have transition programs," Chun said. "We have doubled in the last two years the summer transition program that partners the preschool and the elementary, but more is needed."
One of those transition programs, run by the nonprofit INPEACE, offers a chance for children who have never had preschool to get a sneak preview of what school is like before they get there. Begun three years ago, the INPEACE program has grown rapidly, spreading from seven schools at the start to 23 this year. This summer the three-week program served 500 children.
"In that three weeks it's mainly about social adjustment — what it feels like to be on campus, handling the separation between mom and child, being used to sitting at a desk, just getting into the routine," said Marci Sarsona, INPEACE executive director.
"We can use that time to get the child adjusted to being in a classroom, getting used to the bell. We're not going to make up for the years they didn't go to preschool, but in that time we can also connect children who need more support with the parent community network coordinator. She's able to make those connections with the family."
INPEACE, which offers a parent-participation preschool program called Keiki Steps to Kindergarten at 11 elementary schools throughout the state, states that when parents are involved with their children's learning "it increases a child's success."
SCHOOL, PARENT TOOLS
Children's success also can be bolstered by school techniques, said Lilian Katz, one of the country's foremost authorities in early childhood education. Here for the past week, Katz offered a masters class for teachers at the University of Hawai'i, providing insight into the latest research on how best to teach kindergarten children.
"It's important to get the kindergarten ready for the children," Katz said. "It's not just ready kids. It's ready schools, too."
To Katz that means schools that keep children actively learning, not passively sitting and copying what a teacher tells them or writes on the board.
"We have lots of experience showing that encouraging children to write — even something like 'this is my cat' — is much more productive than sitting children down in a passive position and having them follow what the teacher has read," Katz said. "Evidence shows putting children in a passive role in kindergarten, by three grades later they don't do as well as children who've had a much more active initiation to school."
By active, Katz means capturing a child's imagination. One of the best ways of doing that, she said, is turning them into detectives.
"Kids are born nosy," she said, and the best education plays to that quality. It's something available both at home and school.
"What we've been doing is involving children, very early, in doing investigation. For example, a group of children can decide to investigate what goes on in the supermarket down the road. One group decided they wanted to find out how many kinds of cereal there are. They counted every different kind and they got 162. And they looked at the differences of not just what's in it, but who manufactures it. To make those distinctions they had to look at the names. So they're out there collecting data, and learning basic skills of literacy and numeracy to make sense of experiences."
In Hawai'i, she suggests schools might want to use something as basic as the plants in the schoolyard, and launch an investigation to identify them. That leads to collecting samples, bringing in an expert to help identify them, preparing questions with the children for them to ask the expert and completing reports with bar graphs and pie charts. Katz said this can be done with children as young as 3.
She suggests that one project might be to send every child home with a clipboard, paper and pencil to draw and count all the different kinds of things people can sit on in their home. "Kids love to bring data from home," she said.
Stephanie Feeney, a University of Hawai'i professor of early education who brought Katz to Hawai'i, recommends that parents can do two key things to prepare their children for school: "Read, read, read" with your child, she said, "and turn off the television."
Feeney believes the best kindergarten in the world — like the best home — is a learning environment filled with areas of interest, including cosy corners to read, areas where children can play dress-up, play with blocks, draw and paint, have a store, a zoo, a reading circle and a rich library of books.
"Parents make a huge difference in what happens to their kids when they get to school," Feeney said. "I would like every 4-year-old to have a rich, wonderful learning experience at home or a high quality preschool."
Reach Beverly Creamer at email@example.com.