The vital and viable role of K-12 schools in kindergarten readiness

Kindergarten readiness.  It is a hot topic for folks at the national, the state and local levels.  Articles dot Kentucky 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, my grandchildren’s parents have the excellent resource guides that the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood has prepared.  And Judy and I have our own copies for our grandparent time with those Brooks kids!  Hey, I want my three 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, most 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 noncognitive 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.

Again, I understand and agree with 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.