Cramming for kindergarten: Summer program gives young students a jump on school

July 15, 2013

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Tatiana Johnson, 4, waits patiently with her hand in the air, one of many school-going skills she's learned in summer preschool that could be fundamental to her success in kindergarten. Tatiana's class is at Martin Luther King Elementary in West Oakland. July 10, 2013. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Tatiana Johnson waits patiently with her hand in the air, one of many school-going skills she’s learned in a summer preschool bridge program in Oakland that could be fundamental to her success in kindergarten. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

The 5-year-olds making animal puppets in a West Oakland classroom think they’re just doing fun arts and crafts, but they’re also the newest recruits in a kindergarten “boot camp” that teaches them essential skills they’ll need when they start school in the fall.

These students, who haven’t previously attended preschool, are attending a summer bridge program aimed at providing a crash course on all things kindergarten. The free programs, held in dozens of counties throughout the state, focus on developing skills children need to succeed in the classroom, like how to wait their turn, raise a hand to answer a question or ask for help, play cooperatively with classmates and deal with time away from family. 

These may seem like simple tasks, but research shows that children with no preschool experience struggle with these school-going fundamentals and enter kindergarten academically and socially behind their pre-schooled peers.

“Even as an adult, we don’t want to go into something with no experience of what we’ll be doing,” said Cherelyn Hunt, the early childhood education manager for First 5 Solano County, one of the umbrella organizations that helps fund the programs at public school campuses. “So the idea that we would send a little kid to school with no experience of what they’ll be doing is overwhelming.”

A shortage of publicly funded preschool spots means that not every eligible California child will attend a state preschool or Head Start program before enrolling in kindergarten. And the high cost of private preschool can be a barrier for many middle-class families. The summer bridge programs are often the only option for some families.

The mostly half-day programs for 4- and 5-year-olds who will be eligible to attend kindergarten the following fall can run from two to six weeks depending on the county.

Prep work

Much of the evidence that summer bridge programs work is anecdotal. Kindergarten teachers often say they can “just tell right away” when a child has been to preschool. A study of 828 summer preschool participants in Kern County last summer found that the program did have a clear effect. Children at all five elementary schools that hosted the program showed significant improvement in math, reading and social skills according to pre- and post-program tests.

Most classes are located at district schools and led by at least one certified K-12 teacher from that district. The student-to-teacher ratios are kept at the preschool level of eight students to one teacher, instead of the higher kindergarten ratios that can be as high as 32 students per teacher.

Oakland first grade teacher Jason Polastri became interested in working at the summer program, for which he is paid his standard hourly wage, because so many of his first grade students were showing up to class without the basic social and emotional skills they needed to learn. Some of his students are not able to take turns or work through minor problems, Polastri said, which can lead to frustration and upset feelings.

“There’s a limited amount of time (in class) and if students are spending most of their time upset, it’s hard to learn,” Polastri said. “Having patience and resilience is a pre-condition for more sustained learning.”

On a recent Wednesday, Polastri helped children make animal puppets out of paper bags at a summer bridge program at Martin Luther King Elementary School in West Oakland.

Looking disconsolately at her blank bag, Na’Khia Thompson, 5, told Polastri, one of two teachers in the program, that she didn’t know what a zebra’s mouth looked like. Polastri, who teaches first grade at the nearby Lafayette Elementary School during the school year, brought her a picture book the class had read earlier and helped her find a drawing of a zebra that she could use as inspiration.

Teacher Jason Polastri places students’ names on their chosen activity during a summer preschool class at Martin Luther King Elementary in West Oakland. Selecting an activity and sticking to it for a set amount of time is considered a critical school-going skill. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

He can see the program working.

As he stood by his classroom door and watched his students at recess, he pointed out a little girl in a pink T-shirt and long braids. A few weeks ago she was “just pinging around the classroom,” he said. She wouldn’t stop to look at him when he spoke to her and she had no concept of raising her hand or waiting her turn.

The girl, an only child, has come a long way since then, Polastri said. Though she can still struggle to follow the teachers’ directions or remain at a chosen activity, a gentle reminder is now often enough to redirect her attention.

“She’s had the most difficulty, but has made the most progress,” Polastri said.

‘Last-minute’ intervention

County-based First 5 commissions provide the bulk of the money for these summer programs. The commissions, funded by a tobacco tax approved by voters in 1998, focus on supporting programs for children from infancy to age 5. For the summer bridge programs, the commissions partner with local school districts, which provide classrooms and administrative support. Some districts also provide additional financial support if First 5 funding isn’t enough.

A survey from 2011 found that 35 of the state’s 58 counties had summer bridge programs in place. Costs vary by county, but generally run from around $100 to $400 per student per summer, according to the survey.

Hunt said that her county’s summer bridge program, which will serve 400 children this summer, wouldn’t be possible without the First 5 funding. That funding wasn’t enough by itself, though, and this year First 5 Solano went after local business support as well asking that businesses buy $200 scholarships to cover half the cost of sending a local child to the program.

Teacher Jason Polastri leads a group of summer preschool students in song at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Oakland. July 10, 2013. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

In Oakland, the 13-year-old program was so well-loved that when the county’s First 5 program wasn’t able to cover all nine summer preschool classrooms, the district found funding within its regular operating budget to cover four of those programs. In total, about $60,000 is spent in Oakland to serve 150 children.

Despite their short duration, summer bridge programs at least give the students who need it the most some time in the classroom before starting school, said Hunt of Solano County, which will serve about 400 students in summer bridge programs. “It’s a last-minute intervention,” she said. “It’s getting kids ready to go in and learn.”

As for the students in the Oakland summer preschool program, many are already pros at understanding some of the other critical elements of school.

While putting the finishing touches on her zebra puppet, Na’Khia confided that she was most nervous about getting up early for kindergarten in the fall. “My daddy woke me up today and I was still sleepy when I came to school,” she said with a frown.

But Tatiana Johnson, 5, is excited. And she needed no more than a second of consideration to determine what she is most looking forward to about starting kindergarten: “I like recess,” she said.

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

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