Illustration by Andy Perez
When I received an assignment to visit the Memphis Jewish Community Center (MJCC) kindergarten and interview its early childhood director, I started thinking about my own kindergarten experience.
Needless to say, kindergarten has changed by leaps and bounds from when I attended more than 30 years ago. Back then, schools only required children to be potty trained and talking. Furthermore, kindergarten attendance wasn’t a prerequisite to entering first grade and there were no public kindergartens, only private ones.
Today, “Kindergarten is more like what first grade used to be,” says Michelle Gross, MJCC’s early childhood director, with 5-year-olds meeting an extensive set of requirements. Both public and private preschools use similar criteria and base their curricula on the skills detailed therein.
Gaining basic skills
Memphis City Schools uses the Brigance Inventory of Basic Skills, which consists of five domains for early childhood development: self help, social, emotional, fine motor, gross motor and general knowledge, to measure kindergarten readiness. “A child must have basic skills in these domains to be prepared for kindergarten,” explains MCS Pre-K Director Carolyn Harvey. They test 4-year-old preschoolers at the beginning and end of the school year, and during the year teach the skills necessary to prepare children to score at least 25 percent higher on the end-of-year test.
Jeanne Wilson, St. Mary’s Episcopal School head of early childhood, refers to these criteria as a long list of skills in a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development, most of which is universal. “These are the areas that [children] need experience in so that they are successful in school,” she says.
“At the heart of it is language,” continues Wilson. She stresses the importance of modeling language and reading stories, thus giving a child as many opportunities as possible to hear and use language from birth. She also emphasizes the development of self-confidence, self control, thinking and problem-solving skills.
Some of these skills can be achieved, for example, by encouraging children to think about and explain what they are designing when playing with blocks, or helping them realize there’s more than one way to complete a design. Preschool activities such as circle time help teach children how to listen and how to wait your turn.
In private school settings such as MJCC or St. Mary’s, most children enter the early childhood program at age 2 or 3 and teachers can address a child’s strengths and weaknesses. This gives children a huge advantage to being ready for kindergarten.
Comfortable, confident preschoolers
“What preschool teachers look at is will the child feel successful in kindergarten,” says Gross. They need to feel comfortable and confident in all areas of development so they can have fun in kindergarten and not get frustrated. Teachers use a checklist to evaluate preschoolers at the beginning, middle, and end of their Pre-K4 or junior-kindergarten year.
They look at behaviors such as attention span, or how long the toddler can sit and listen or work without getting antsy; reading comprehension, or how a child answers questions about a story she has heard; letter recognition and sounds; counting and number recognition; verbal communications, and social interaction.
“You might have a concern at the beginning of the year but it gets better as the year goes on,” explains Rose Marie Rossman, MJCC lead kindergarten teacher. It’s a combination of the children naturally maturing and the teachers working with them on improving skills.
Harvey agrees, a preschool program gives children a tremendous advantage to being ready for kindergarten. MCS also assesses its kindergartners on the first day of class using the Kindergarten Readiness Indicator (KRI). “Children who attend a Memphis City Schools Pre-K program score higher on the KRI than children who do not attend our program,” says Harvey. The test also examines what kind of childcare or previous educational experience students have encountered.
“Unfortunately,” says Harvey, “we only [have the space to] serve 4,000 kids in MCS Pre-K classes.” Roughly 250 children are on a waiting list, but many more parents don’t even apply. “Children with the most need get the first slots,” says Harvey, since preschool eligibility is based on income and educational deprivation. In order to service those waitlisted, MCS offers an Early Childhood Parent Learning Academy to teach parents about the basic skills required for kindergarten readiness. MCS also gives out literature to help parents reinforce basic readiness skills at home.
Most educators advise against repeating preschool. “It is up to us to make sure our programs meet the needs of all children,” Gross explains “We do a lot to individualize [learning] because we have kids at varying levels, socially, emotionally and academically, but also we make sure the standards are high. As they experience change, kids typically rise to new expectations.”
“A lot of learning happens between February and May,” in Pre-K4, she continues, so even if a child doesn’t seem to be ready by the middle of that year, most likely they will be by the years’ end, especially if parents work with them at home on areas where they need improvement. “Something clicks after January,” says Rossman, “It’s amazing how much they grow in a year.”