SHERIDAN — While the number of students in preschool programs has remained steady over the past 15 years, educators say the role of preschool and kindergarten has changed over that period.
Many preschool teachers and school district officials said today’s preschool resembles yesterday’s kindergarten. Preschool now serves as the initial building block for students to learn and adapt to the concept of school — a role that was previously reserved for the kindergarten classroom.
As the role of kindergarten and preschool have changed, so have local districts’ definitions of what it means to be “kindergarten ready.”
At Sheridan County School District 2, Assistant Superintendent Scott Stults said the district has increased its focus on early childhood education over the last several years.
The district’s kindergarten readiness list for early-childhood education providers includes five categories: language/reading/writing, motors skills, math, life skills and current curriculums being used in SCSD2 kindergarten.
The district compiled this list after meeting with early childhood educators, district officials, kindergarten teachers in all three Sheridan County school districts and other educators in the district.
While there is no statewide definition of kindergarten readiness, Stults said communication between local districts and early childhood care providers remains crucial in preparing students for kindergarten.
“Do we expect them to be able to read, write and complete multiple-digit arithmetic when they enter kindergarten? We absolutely do not,” Stults said. “I know some parents have that (belief) that their child is supposed to be able to do that going into kindergarten, and we do not expect that at all.”
However, the district now expects students to be able to read and write by the time they move on to first grade.
Extra steps have been taken to increase classroom rigor within SCSD2, as well.
Woodland Park Elementary School will be the first to pilot an all-day kindergarten classroom beginning in the 2017-18 school year, a move administrators and teachers at the school said will increase instruction time.
Over the past several decades, naptime has also been phased out of kindergarten classrooms’ school day.
Through Sheridan College, SCSD2 will utilize an early childhood liaison to help with the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Additionally, SCSD1 implemented an early childhood program called Learning with Littles, in which parents can bring their children from birth to 5 years old for learning activities at both the old Tongue River Elementary and Big Horn Middle schools.
Big Horn also has a preschool program through its school.
While the majority of incoming SCSD2 students attend regular kindergarten classrooms and are considered kindergarten ready, the district also offers classic kindergarten, which allows students who may be academically, socially or emotionally behind to take an extra year to prepare before making their way into a traditional classroom.
While academics are important, preschool educators say social and emotional development may be the most important components when preparing students for kindergarten.
Amanda Dube, preschool coordinator for the Child Development Center — Region II, said if social and emotional skills develop before kindergarten, the academic skills will follow.
“In preschool, when calm and ready to play, we can get out toys and activities and teach them about math, literacy or science,” Dube said. “But if they are nervous and they can’t calm their body, they are not going to be able to have those good experiences.”
The CDC preschool uses curriculum compiled by the Wyoming Early Childhood State Advisory Council that focuses on 10 areas, including academic, physical and social/emotional skills.
So why is kindergarten readiness being emphasized? Educators said it’s a combination of factors.
The first revolves around parents. Kimberly Brown, a parent of children who went through the Head Start preschool program in Sheridan and who currently serves as a teacher’s aid at the preschool, said many parents don’t understand what is expected of their child, which leads to increased pressure on the child to be successful academically.
Dube said parents are beginning to ask more questions about their children’s education and learning the impacts of early education.
“I think parents are more open to bring their children in for those early experiences,” Dube said.
More research on the benefits of school readiness has been released, as well. Statistics cited on the National Education Association’s website state that those who participate in preschool programs are more successful in the job field and have a lower chance of repeating grades.
“It’s not just kindergarten you have to think about,” said Sara McGinnis, curriculum director at SCSD1. “You have to think about readiness for middle school, for high school — are they going to be ready for those critical points in their life?”
Some claim standardized testing has also become a driving force behind the emphasis on early childhood education. The Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students test, which was taken for the final time in Wyoming during the 2016-17 school year, was given as early as third grade.
While increasing rigor at a young age may be critical for a student’s future, educators said there is a limit. Stults said when working with young children, educators have to be careful not to push students over the edge, as it could have a negative impact on a child’s desire to learn.
“There is a point where enough is enough,” Stults said.
Tanya Buchanan, a teacher at Head Start, said at the preschool level, children learn best through play. Taking that aspect away from young students may have consequences.
“They are learning through play, constantly,” Buchanan said. “People think they are wasting time, but they are learning through play.”