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Are Kindergarten Classrooms Ready for all Kids?

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Following is a guest post from Terry Brooks who spent some three decades as a public school administrator in Kentucky as a principal and as a central office administrator. Since 2004, he has served as the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a non-profit policy group that acts as the independent voice for Kentucky's kids. Brooks' work has been cited in a number of publications, including "Successful Schools for Early Adolescents" (Lipsitz), "Moral Leadership" (Sergiovanni) and "Allies in Reform" (Kohli). Brooks himself is an author with works including, "Innovation and Commitment " and "The High Price of Being Poor."

One of my best friends is raising his three grandchildren. No small task for an 85 year-old. But Jim is no ordinary 85 year-old. He grew up under the strictures of Jim Crowe laws and segregated schools. He earned his graduate degrees and spent four decades as a public school administrator. And yet he is ready to give up on public schools because of Zane.

Zane is his oldest grandkid. When I talked with Zane this summer, he would talk about being "an expert bug catcher," "a telescope looker," and a young man who "can even speak German." When I talk to Zane now, he describes himself as "not very smart" and "I get a lot of red dots because I must not know how to behave." What happened to Zane? Kindergarten. Kindergarten in a school that is apparently not ready for kindergarteners - or at least not Zane.

What can I say? One day the teacher was going to read a book on oceans and Zane acted like a fish on the story time carpet. And Jim got the call about that young man's bad behavior. On another day, the class was studying the numeral three. Do you know what Zane did? He walked on the third block from the wall while going to lunch - and in this school, you can only walk on the second block. And Jim got another call and another and another. Now my friend who gave four decades of his life (as well as his deceased wife having given three decades) to public schools is intrigued by home school.

Kindergarten readiness is a hot topic for folks at the national, the state and local levels. In my home state of Kentucky, articles dot newspapers and "feel good" stories appear on local news stations about efforts large and small to get youngsters ready for kindergarten. Reading academies are hard-nosed summer boot camps. Fun-filled prep rallies and picnics in the park carry a "feel good, rah-rah" tone.

I understand - and agree with - the absolute obligation to ensure a child's readiness in a holistic manner for school. Exposure to vocabulary in both oral and print form. The beginning comprehension of numericity. The maturation of gross and fine motor skills. And the litany goes on and on. All are very important. In fact, the parents of all five of my grandchildren have theexcellent resource guides that the Kentucky Governor's Office of Early Childhood has prepared. And my wife Judy and I have our own copies for our grandparent time with those Brooks kids! Hey, I want my pre-school grandkids to rock kindergarten! The kind of advice that guides such as those from the Governor's Office provide is practical and welcomed by this grandpa.

I also know that investing in quality early childhood programs including child care and preschool are proven to help kids be more prepared to enter school ready to succeed. These programs go beyond "feel good" activities and complement what parents do to engage their kids in learning. We need to promote and support more quality early childhood programs which pay dividends long into the future.

However, there seems to be a third part of this equation that needs to be addressed. In my experience, almost all of the emphasis - the pressure - the heat - is on the child being ready for the school. The importance of a child being ready for school is absolutely essential. But we need a balance around roles and responsibilities. Do parents and extended families, child care and community centers, faith communities and others have important responsibilities to play in achieving that readiness? Absolutely.

But we also need to recognize the responsibilities implicit for schools in the readiness equation. Schools must be challenged to play a vital and viable role in helping those youngsters get prepared for school. And perhaps equally crucial is the responsiveness that schools demonstrate in being ready to embrace every child regardless of that youngster's readiness quotient.

When those numbers roll out around which kids are ready and which kids are not - there is often an implicit - and maybe explicit -- message that the problem is totally on the shoulders of five year olds and their families. It reminds me of that national embarrassment - Lester Maddox. When running for the Governor of Georgia, Maddox argued that, "All we need for better prisons is a better breed of prisoners." Well, I would argue that the notion, "All we need for better schools is a better breed of students," is the quiet refrain of the "it's all on the kids" movement around kindergarten success. Kindergarten readiness is a commitment on all of us.

Can we think about how other industrialized nations approach the issue? In Canada and Finland and Japan and a host of other nations, it is all about the schools getting ready for the kids. These countries aim to meet kids where they are and teach and assess them using methods that focus on outcomes and growth rather than merely focusing on test scores. They also give attention to non-cognitive factors like health and nutrition as doorways to academic achievement and provide family supports, knowing that every child does not live in a "Leave It to Beaver" home.

When the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was passed some two decades ago, there was an inordinate emphasis upon schools ensuring first time success for every student. Developmentally appropriate classrooms. Ungraded primary programs. Intentional integration of brain research, pedagogy and curriculum. Transition supports for kids and families. That valued and valuable role for schools in quality early education has seemingly vanished in the wind and in its place is an equation in which the success of Zane and thousands of other five year olds is seemingly on everyone but school personnel.

Again, I understand and agree with national leaders; state officials; local politicos; and, nonprofits that kindergarten readiness is important. It is an issue that demands our attention and our collective action. And I understand that a vital part of the equation is investing in quality early childhood programs and support from family, faith communities and grassroots' organizations to ensure that every child entering kindergarten is ready to learn. But in addition to that, schools need to recognize their role in the process as well. We have to be just as creative and responsive in schools to those entering youngsters as we expect parents to be in preparing the children.

In what can only be described as hubris, Zane's school's marquee proclaims, "Welcome to the greatest school on earth." Greatness for this school and any elementary school must include being ready for those kindergarteners as they walk through the door just as surely as greatness for families and communities includes helping get those little ones ready to learn from that first day in kindergarten.

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