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Tampa Bay schools ramp up efforts to ready children for kindergarten

After a pandemic that kept many kids out of preschool and hurt reading scores, districts expanded summer programs.
Teacher Ashlie Brierley helps Nyla Kramer write a sentence while Aaron Acosta-Horsman, right, draws a dinosaur in a Rising Kindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.
Teacher Ashlie Brierley helps Nyla Kramer write a sentence while Aaron Acosta-Horsman, right, draws a dinosaur in a Rising Kindergarten class at Dunedin Elementary on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Jun. 21

DUNEDIN — Seven sweaty 4- and 5-year-olds headed from recess to their classroom carpet one recent morning, where teacher Ashlie Brierley began reviewing the rules.

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

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

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

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

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

At the same time, the importance of early learning came into focus as only about half of third-graders got at least a satisfactory score on the state’s reading test this year.

Related: 53% of Florida third-graders passed the state’s 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. “Nearly 90% of students who failed to earn a high school diploma were struggling readers in third grade.”

Addressing that concern, area districts devised new summertime kindergarten readiness programs and expanded others.

Pinellas County extended its Rising K program into 50 elementary schools, and launched an online 100-day countdown to kindergarten. Hillsborough County developed video literacy lessons for children and parents to practice. Pasco County created a jump start program it will offer at every elementary school for the first time.

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

“It’s absolutely crucial,” said principal Lisa Brown. “This is to help ensure that every student is prepared, in a developmentally appropriate way.”

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

Related: In Pinellas, kids get an early start to kindergarten

She noted that the pandemic created more inconsistencies than usual in children’s readiness, and not only with more of them staying home. Early learning depends on looking at teachers’ faces and mouths, Combs said, and mask use might have interfered with that effort.

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The videos aim to bridge the gap by providing children with fun activities to practice their letters, said Amanda Osorio, the district’s early childhood curriculum supervisor. They can be found at hillsboroughschools.org/learningletters.

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

“It’s bringing Sesame Street in 2022 to Tampa, Florida,” Osorio said.

The Pinellas district also focused on creating videos that families can use at home to get ready for kindergarten together, beyond the expanded Rising K program. It took a different approach, though.

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

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

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

The Pasco school district has a video-infused online Read-At-Home plan to help families work with children on literacy, too. But its primary focus for kindergarten readiness this year centers on a district-wide “jump start.”

Previously offered at individual schools, the two-day program will run at 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 also will help teachers create classroom communities and give them an early look at children’s abilities, Mitchell said. “That way we can really hit the ground learning on Day 1.”

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

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