New routines as school starts can overwhelm kindergarteners, especially if they didn’t go to preschool.
That’s why many Kansas City area school districts try to ease the transition for young students with summer programs.
Two weeks before school officially started in the Shawnee Mission School District, soon-to-be kindergartener Colin Graves was eating breakfast in the Merriam Park Elementary cafeteria with his classmates.
“The yogurt was yummy, and I didn’t know this!” he said excitedly.
Kindergarten is all about new experiences. Colin had already tried lots of new things as part of the district’s three-week “Jump Start to Learning” summer camp.
“The most fun thing I’ve done is watched a puppet show at a different Merriam Park,” Colin said.
That “different Merriam Park” was actually Shawnee Mission West, where the Jump Start students went on a field trip.
“Every child in Jump Start now has had a chance to ride the school bus, which was another experience for them, and they saw the puppet show, so they understand how to be an audience member and what the expectations are for an assembly,” said Leigh Anne Neal, assistant superintendent for early childhood education.
Now in its fifth year, Jump Start served 360 incoming kindergartners at 20 sites, the most that have ever participated in the program. The goal is to get students comfortable with all the things they’ll be expected to do on the first day of school, from eating in the cafeteria to sitting on the floor with their classmates.
“We just filled our tummies, so we’re ready to learn,” kindergarten teacher Becky Dallman said as students filed into her classroom. “What do we do with our backpacks?”
“Cubbies!” the soon-to-be kindergartners replied enthusiastically.
“And what do we do with our bodies?”
“Sit on the floor!”
Dustin Springer, an instructional coach at Merriam Park, says the kids who participate in Jump Start become classroom leaders when school begins.
“They're amazing peer role models,” Springer said. “They have that foundation for learning, and they have that mindset, these are the expectations that our teachers have for us. It almost rubs off on the other students who weren't a part of the program.”
Shawnee Mission tries to enroll students who haven’t had any preschool in Jump Start, though the program is open to any family who wants to participate.
“What they report is a growth in confidence in their child. Their child feels really comfortable coming to school,” Neal said.
Shawnee Mission isn’t the only school district that hosts a kindergarten camp. Kindergartners at Belton’s extended-year elementary come for 20 extra days to get acclimated to the school. This past summer, Lee’s Summit started including new kindergarteners in its Summer Learning Institute, serving 326 students at six schools. Raytown encourages incoming kindergartners to attend summer school. Several Blue Valley schools offer visits or camps to incoming students.
Kindergarten camps can’t replace high-quality pre-K, but they can help bridge the gap for kids who haven’t been to preschool. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 66 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in some kind of pre-K program in 2016. Black and Hispanic students were less likely than white and Asian students to go to preschool, and the number of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool hadn’t changed substantially since 2000.
Early childhood education is expensive, and kindergarten camp is no exception. Shawnee Mission funded Jump Start this summer with a $373,000 grant from the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
“Usually it’s money that causes you not to be able to do some of those things you really wish you could do,” Deloris Brown, principal of Wendell Phillips Elementary in the Kansas City Public Schools, said. “We have always wanted to be able to give our boys and girls a head start when it comes to kindergarten.”
Most kindergartners come to Phillips without having been to preschool. They don’t always understand the routines and procedures, and they have trouble following directions. So when Phillips got a school improvement grant from SchoolSmartKC, Brown set aside a little of it for a kindergarten camp. She called families, mailed invitations, bought donuts and waited for the students to show up.
Only a few did that first day.
“What does happen in our school district, some of our students enroll a little bit later on,” Brown said.
And that meant she couldn’t reach out to those families.
The kids who did attend the kindergarten camp at Phillips had a great time. They ate in the cafeteria, played on the playground, practiced their letter sounds and put together puzzles with their classmates. They even got to meet the zookeeper from the Zoomobile. Brown expects them to be little leaders this year.
But a lot of other kids set foot in a school for the first time this week, without having been to preschool or kindergarten camp, which means they’ll have to play catch up from day one.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.