First Person

Ask an Expert: At what age should my son attend preschool?

EdNews Parent experts Ann Morrison, Karla Scornavacco and Robert “Kim” Herrell respond to a question from Amy of Boulder:

Q. At what age should my son attend pre-school?  He is 2 now. We have a nanny take care of him during the day and I worry he is not getting the preparation necessary to help him acclimate in kindergarten.

Ann Morrison: Many parents wonder about kindergarten and how to prepare their kids. Although school attendance in kindergarten is not required by Colorado law, I think it is among the most important years of a child’s life.  Like Robert Fulghum’s poem that begins, “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten”, some highly important lessons are learned there.  Many academic, social, and behavioral areas develop in this time of a child’s life. However I will only address literacy development here.

It can be easy to think that school is the first place kids learn conventional literacy, but actually literacy development begins at birth. For example, when you pull into the restaurant parking lot how does your son know whether he is getting a Happy Meal or you are getting a latte?  He sees the “golden arches” of McDonalds or the green and black circle of Starbucks and knows that those logos have meaning, which is an area of literacy called logography.  Soon he will begin to notice the difference between text and pictures on his storybook page and come to understand that the words that you say when you read to him come from the text, not the pictures.  All of these experiences are part of a stage of reading development called emergent literacy.  A strong foundation in emergent literacy provides the foundation for instruction in conventional literacy taught in schools.

Regardless whether your son spends his days with an adult caretaker or in a pre-school setting, what is most important is that the interaction he is having is high quality.  High quality interaction includes lots of oral language experiences, extended time for play with a variety of toys, lots of “lap time” with an adult reading a wide selection of books, and plenty of “face time” with peers and adults for talking and eye contact.

You may want to work in a part-day preschool experience, but, if you believe that your son is having rich language and text experiences with his nanny already then I don’t believe there is any reason to change his care.

Several publications from the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) provide suggestions for developmentally appropriate language and literacy activities for parents and caretakers.  Two Shining Stars booklets, one for toddlers and another for preschoolers, and another booklet titled Literacy Begins at Home are all good examples of resources at the NIFL.

Karla Scornavacco: In the state of Colorado, children can start “preschool” at the age of 2.5.  Some preschools will save a spot for your child, and welcome him into the school the day he turns 2½.  It’s the first “half birthday” that many parents of young children celebrate…while others dread, and others aren’t quite sure what to make of it. Preschool is indeed a path to kindergarten preparation. The trick, though, is figuring out what your son needs right now as a 2-year-old, and what works best for your family and work situation. A 2-year-old’s needs can be quite different from a 5- or 6-year-old’s needs.

The notion that there is one perfect, “it-must-be-this-way-path” to kindergarten is absurd.  So, take a breather. We, as parents, are going to be dealing with all sorts of parents who are going to choose school options for their children that do not match what we want for our families.  We may second-guess ourselves.  We may over-think options.  That’s OK. It’s part of the journey of being a parent.

So, what does your 2-year-old son “need” in order to be prepared for kindergarten?  Here’s a brief list.  There are multiple ways to meet these milestones.

  • Recognize rhyming sounds
  • Identify rhyming words
  • Follow two-step directions (e.g. get out the scissors, then fold the paper).
  • Cut with scissors
  • Trace basic shapes
  • Begin to share with others
  • Start to follow rules
  • Manage bathroom needs
  • Button shirts, pants, coats, and zip up zippers
  • Separate from parents without being upset
  • Speak understandably
  • Talk in complete sentences of five to six words
  • Look at pictures and then tell stories
  • Identify the beginning sound of some words
  • Identify some alphabet letters
  • Recognize some common sight words like “stop”
  • Sort similar objects by color, size, and shape
  • Recognize groups of one, two, three, four, and five objects
  • Bounce a ball

How can we know that children are ready for school?  According to national studies, teachers are more likely to expect your son to be able to pay attention and communicate his needs when he enters kindergarten.  Other parents, though, are more likely to focus on academic skills, such as counting to 20 or knowing all 26 letters.  There are two overlapping priorities at work here: your child’s socio-emotional development, and his academic development. You and your nanny can take care of most, if not all, of your son’s pre-kindergarten “academic needs.”  The socio-emotional part, though, requires that your son be around kids his age at least a few times a week. See this pamphlet from the Colorado State Library on kindergarten readiness, or this longer document on the same thing from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Robert K. Herrell: As recent education summits/conferences have pointed out, preschool has an incredibly positive effect on the success of a student in school.  Yet opinions remain mixed on the best age for children to begin preschool.

Most preschool providers have a checklist of readiness behaviors. You might check out websites of preschools to see if they provide any guidance. And, as you visit and observe different preschool centers, ask to see their list of preschool readiness traits.

At the top of the list is usually, “Must be potty trained.”  Preschool staff know that accidents will happen, and many will have you leave a change of clothes for your child.  They are not interested, though, in taking the time away from the other children to perform this service for you.  Please don’t rush or force potty training, though. Your child will do it when he/she is ready.

It is so important to go and visit preschools.  Look for a clean, warm and caring environment.  There should be lots of talk, but not yelling.  Is the staff up with the children modeling behaviors, or are they sitting on one side of the room chatting?  And if you liked a preschool an older child went to, go and observe it again.  The staff and atmosphere may have changed.  Take the time to select what is best for your child.

Many preschools have options for the amount of time a child can attend:  half-day, full-day, two days a week, etc.  Let your child build up their “time” as they are ready, at their individual developmental pace.  “Can I go see Ms. V. and my friends today?”  This would be a signal for more time at preschool.  Some also have a late shift for those parents who work later hours. Ask about what options they offer.

If you are looking for a pre-kindergarten program, it is a slightly different decision process. Does the preschool understand the kindergarten readiness skills at your local school district? How exactly will the pre-K program work with your child to build his readiness?  A quality pre-K program will be able to give you specific examples. Many such programs will only allow your child to participate for one year, so it is best to begin such programs when your child can seamlessly move right into kindergarten.

When to send your child to preschool depends a lot on your own child’s development in those wonderful years between 2 and 5.  Selecting the right environment for him is also crucial. Is it as important as the college they will go to?  Maybe more.  It ranks up there with books and reading in the home as favorable indicators of future success. As parents, one of our jobs is to open as many doors for our children as we can.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.