As I paused at a stoplight across from the local elementary school this morning, I saw a familiar sight that brought back memories… Carpool line. Moms and dads giving last minute hugs and kisses and straightening backpacks. First day of Kindergarten! Some drove out of the school lot and on their way. Others pulled into parking spots.
I remember being one of the parkers… just to watch my son walk into the building to his teacher waiting at the doorway. And then, he was gone. Sigh. Just one of many times a parent experiences “letting go.” It isn’t easy. I didn’t think I would cry, because I really did prepare myself for this day. But, it didn’t matter. There I was, along with the other parents, quietly sobbing in my car. I suddenly experienced a vivid flashback of the past five years, overwhelmed with excitement for my son’s future and some unanticipated parental anxiety.
That being said, I was able to rein in the emotions and recover, knowing my son had spent years in a high quality preschool program that prepared him socially and academically for that day and his school years to come.
We all know that a high quality preschool experience is not a universal countermeasure for all the challenges children face and that whether or not they attend should be a family choice. However, research tells us that it really does help children get on the right path towards school success.
I guess the real cause for tears is the many children who are now starting Kindergarten who may have needed the benefits of a good preschool and didn’t get them. In fact, many will show up this week, already at risk academically and unprepared socially to adjust to the demands of being in a classroom. This will not only affect these children as they begin Kindergarten, but can also continue throughout their school years.
Another thing most people don’t consider is what the teachers are faced with as a result. They are given a classroom of five-year-olds, some having had rich family and preschool experiences. Others spent those years playing by themselves or with siblings, watching a lot of TV, and never had a chance to go to preschool.
Despite the huge dichotomy of abilities, experience, and readiness, these teachers are charged with ensuring that ALL of them meet state academic standards by the end of the year. What? This is, in case you haven’t guessed, a herculean task we’re expecting here! Then, let’s add even more pressure by tying their wages and sometimes even their job security to the results of those standardized tests. It’s no wonder we read about some of these teachers fudging the children’s test scores or worse. No teacher deserves being pushed into a corner so far, that she will consider compromising her ethics or morals.
Nor should any child attend a school where his best isn’t good enough, he is pressured to perform beyond what he can do, and where he will not feel successful. An atmosphere like this only compounds the risks he carried with him when he first walked in the door.
This has to change. But, it won’t be easy, that’s for sure.
As it stands now, only 15 states even require Kindergarten, let alone make preschool a priority. In the remaining states, many children aren’t required to attend school at all until age six or seven, with two states not requiring school attendance until age eight. What?
If a child was already at risk by age five for difficulty in school, what can it mean for a child who is seven or eight?
But, I digress. Fortunately, in many states, the momentum for public investment in preschool is growing. This has resulted from strong support of business leaders, educators, politicians, philanthropic groups, parents, and taxpayers.
What is most encouraging is the fact that as state-funded programs are planned, the emphasis is shifting towards what is truly important… supporting social-emotional skills, a love of learning, and curiosity.
There is also the recognition that quality requires well-trained teachers, as well as coordination and communication between preschool programs and the K-12 system, so children can continue to benefit from what they gained from their early education.
Despite the rainbow in the distance, there are still some sticking points that keep a cloud overhead. Some preschool providers are required to match grant funding from the state. This can be unfair to programs in rural areas or smaller counties that are unable to garner the same level of support as those in urban or larger ones. When the programs become ineligible, it results in a shortage of affordable programs for children in these areas.
It all gets back to an understanding that preschool is a critical part of the education system, not just a luxury for those who can afford it.
So, as the new school year begins, let’s think beyond our own children. Instead, let’s consider what every child deserves and find out what we can do to make a difference.