Tampa Bay schools step up efforts to prepare children for kindergarten

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DUNEDIN — Seven sweaty 4- and 5-year-olds made their way from recess to their classroom carpet on a recent morning, where teacher Ashlie Brierley started reviewing the rules.

The children had been attending the Rising Kindergarten program at Dunedin Elementary for only a week, but they knew the details. Use kind words. Use listening ears.

And they had no trouble observing another rule – having fun while learning – as they drew, played with building blocks and worked in the “kitchen”, browsing through books and practicing letters and words.

Landon Aponte and a classmate play with puppets in Ashlie Brierley's class at Dunedin Primary School on Wednesday June 15, 2022.
Landon Aponte and a classmate play with puppets in Ashlie Brierley’s class at Dunedin Primary School on Wednesday June 15, 2022. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

“I want to learn, learn my letters and my alphabet,” Mallory Reyes-Kraftchak said as she attended a fake birthday party. “You will receive a prize or a toy.”

During the pandemic, school districts in the Tampa Bay area found fewer families placing their children in preschools. For some, that meant not being ready to learn in the classroom.

At the same time, the importance of early learning has been highlighted, as only about half of third graders scored at least a passing grade on the state reading test this year.

Related: 53% of third-graders in Florida passed the state reading test this year

“We know that literacy scores as early as third grade can predict a student’s future success or failure,” Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said recently. students who failed to graduate from high school struggled to read in third grade.”

To address this concern, districts across the region have designed new summer kindergarten readiness programs and expanded others.

Pinellas County expanded its Rising K program to 50 elementary schools and launched a 100-day online countdown to kindergarten. Hillsborough County has developed video literacy lessons for children and parents. Pasco County has created a Quick Start program that it will offer for the first time in every elementary school.

Aaron Acosta-Horsman draws a dinosaur in Ashlie Brierley's class at Dunedin Primary School on Wednesday June 15, 2022.
Aaron Acosta-Horsman draws a dinosaur in Ashlie Brierley’s class at Dunedin Primary School on Wednesday June 15, 2022. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

“It’s absolutely critical,” said director Lisa Brown. “This helps to ensure that each student is prepared, in a developmentally appropriate way.”

Hillsborough School Board President Nadia Combs recommended the district’s new video lessons.

Related: In Pinellas, children enter kindergarten early

She noted that the pandemic has created more inconsistencies than usual in the preparation of children, and not just with more of them staying at home. Early learning depends on examining teachers’ faces and mouths, Combs said, and mask use may have interfered with that effort.

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The videos aim to bridge the gap by providing fun activities for kids to practice their letters, said Amanda Osorio, district early years program supervisor. They can be found at hillsboroughschools.org/learningletters.

Parents can use the videos as guides to help their children learn at home, Osorio said, and teachers can incorporate them into classroom lessons. It’s not just about slaying and punching, she explained, but rather an interactive approach that shows children how to identify, say and write letters.

“It brings Sesame Street to 2022 in Tampa, Florida,” Osorio said.

Pinellas District has also focused on creating videos that families can use at home to prepare for kindergarten together, beyond the expanded Rising K curriculum. It took a different approach, though.

Elementary schools regularly celebrate the 100th day of school. So why not generate similar interest for students preparing for their first day of school, they reasoned.

“We tried to capitalize on the excitement of the countdown and how exciting it is to really start kindergarten,” said Jennifer Mekler, director of early childhood education for the district.

Every video, found on pcsb.org/100days, focuses on a learning activity that children can do at home. Day 71, for example, showed parents how they can encourage problem-solving in building a living room fort.

Pasco School District has video infused online Home reading plan to help families work with children on literacy, too. But his primary focus for kindergarten readiness this year is focused on a district-wide “quick start.”

Previously offered in individual schools, the two-day program will roll out to all elementary schools at the end of July. The goal is to get children acclimated to their schools and parents comfortable with how kindergarten works, said Lea Mitchell, district director of teaching and learning. .

The initiative will also help teachers build classroom communities and give them early insight into children’s abilities, Mitchell said. “That way we can really start learning from day one.”

Ashlie Brierley chats with her Rising Kindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary before students get to work in learning centers on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.
Ashlie Brierley chats with her Rising Kindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary before students get to work in learning centers on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

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