In the past, kindergarten was a time for students to ease into their academic careers; now children are expected to enter school ready to learn. Students who start school unprepared are at risk of falling behind their peers.
One program in the Anoka-Hennepin School District helping young learners and their families is the Kindergarten Readiness Preschool (KRP) program. KRP is targeted to students learning to speak English as well as students from English-speaking families who meet income guidelines. For those students, KRP is available at no cost and transportation is provided. KRP is currently available at University Avenue and Mississippi elementary schools and Riverview Early Childhood Center.
Because of its success and new Literacy Aid funding provided by the state, KRP will add five sites in the fall. Those sites are still being determined.
Steve Kerr, the director of Community Education whose department oversees KRP, said the program has been successful for many reasons. He cites parents’ interest in having their students take part in a program like this, partners, such as the School Board and district administration, who work to support the program and KRP teachers who do an outstanding job of providing solid instruction in all areas of development.
“The children make wonderful progress throughout the school year,” Kerr said. “The gains in skills are evident in their social interactions, vocabulary development, their knowledge of letters, numbers, and much more. I love how enthusiastic the early childhood teachers are about the progress of children in the Kindergarten Readiness Preschool program.”
Beth Yokom, an Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) and School Readiness program (SRP) supervisor, works with the University Avenue site. Joni Warzala is the classroom teacher. Both women have seen first-hand success with KRP. They say it differs from other preschool programs in many ways.
Yokom likes the “extras” available in an elementary school.
“The children ride the school bus, there is a gym and students can attend assemblies appropriate for them,” she said. “For students, we are able to make connections with staff, such as speech therapists; for parents, we are able to build a comfort level with school.”
Warzala likes the four-day week schedule versus the two-day a week schedule found in many preschools. Because of holidays, or health or transportation issues, under the two-day a week schedule, many times teachers don’t get to see students two days a week. Even when they do, there are three to four days between classes.
“In working with kids it’s important to build trust and make a connection,” Warzala said. “With a four-day schedule it’s easier to build that trust so you can move onto other things.”
A long-time preschool teacher, Warzala said with the four-day week, students have an easier time getting into a routine and paying attention. Working with Sue Mueller, an assistant teacher, and Shirley Brede, a special education paraeducator, Warzala is able to do activities with students in November that in years past had to wait until after winter break. With greater expectations for students, this is very important.
“Between the ages of four and five, there is a huge window for math and literacy potential,” Warzala said. “For example, I’m always amazed at how students hit a point and then they want to know how to read. If you don’t get them at that time you lose that.”
Warzala said it’s important that families know what is expected of students.
“When I graduated from college, I taught kindergarten and first grade,” she said. “What I’m teaching now in preschool is what I taught then in kindergarten. When students leave KRP, we want them to be able to write their names, name at least 30 upper and lower case letters and be able to count to 20. It’s important to get parents on board with this.”
KRP works to embed academic learning in play; rather than drill students with flashcards, students learn as they play. This year, KRP staff spent two weeks talking about zoo animals and showing the students the names of the animals. A student who began the school year unable to speak English and not knowing any letters of the alphabet, knew what a “z” was and the sound it made, so therefore it must go with the zebra. Another student who did not know English at the beginning of the school year helped a classmate find the sign for the lion.
“We said to each other, ‘did you see that, did you see that?’” Warzala said. “No matter how long I’ve done this, I get excited about what they pick up and what they learn.”
Students were asked to copy the names of the animals onto nameplates. Students liked the activity because it had a purpose.
“There was a little guy who doesn’t like to write, but he liked making signs for the animals,” Yokom said. “I had just read an article about preschool research that connect context with a higher level of skill. The key is to be developmentally appropriate and the zoo activity was a perfect example.”
KRP not only helps students and their families, but has the potential to help the students’ future teachers as well. Evaluations done during the students’ time in KRP will help teachers know where students are at in their learning and where they need to go. This information ranges from how many letters a student knows to how they interact with other students.
An investment in KRP aligns with the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s focus on pre-K through third grade education and preparing all children for success. Yokom said that Anoka-Hennepin is on the leading edge with the KRP program.
“It’s rare that a K-12 system would share its funding and space with preschool programs,” Yokom said. “It’s exciting to have these things happening in Anoka-Hennepin.”
Families receive information about KRP through a mailing, home visits and word of mouth. For registration information, contact 763-433-4900.