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Ready Or Not, Part 1: Kindergarten Is The Big Test

Charlotte Albright
Jamal Wargu reads aloud in his kindergarten room at JFK Elementary School in Winooski.

Fewer than half of the state's preschoolers are ready for kindergarten, according to a recent report. So the state of Vermont is trying to prepare them better. 

A new law requires every school district in the state to offer 10 hours of high quality preschool per week. The legislation was controversial, but those who pushed for it cited a powerful statistic: 90 percent of a child’s brain is formed by the age of 5.

At the kickoff of a public relations campaign called Let’s Grow Kids, Burlington pediatrician Joe Hagan explained how a child’s brain develops.

He said brain neurons grow more quickly than previously thought, but they need to be activated and connected to one another early in life to keep growing. That’s called synaptogenesis.

“In the early process those neurons sort of reach out and anything that stimulates it, it connects to, and we want to enrich that neuron growth," Hagan told the audience. "We want to enrich that synaptogenesis, that creation of synapses, because that’s what creates a healthy brain."

The 30-Million Word Gap

Children with less healthy brains don’t get an early start on learning, and fall behind their peers quickly. A groundbreaking study at Rice University found drastic differences in vocabulary development, depending on socioeconomic background.

Children from high-income families were exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare, according to the study.

There’s another big obstacle that makes it hard for children to succeed in kindergarten: bad behavior.

In addition to socioeconomic inequality, there's another big obstacle that makes it hard for children to succeed in kindergarten: bad behavior.

That's what one Winooski teacher, Jessica Perrotte, told business leaders at the “Let’s Grow Kids” event.

“We’re seeing children who have a hard time sharing and taking turns and we’re actually seeing children who have a hard time communicating with one another," Perrotte said. "And most recently we’re seeing students who are finding a difficult time interacting with one another."       

Tantrum Control

If 5-year-olds can’t avoid temper tantrums, no one is going to learn very much. That’s why, in her classroom, Perrotte has begun doing some unusual things. Like using color-coded cards to reward good behavior. And starting each day with a video that helps students sharpen their focus for school.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
"We're seeing students who are finding a difficult time interacting with one another," says Winooski teacher Jessica Perrotte, who uses mindfulness practices in her classroom.

“Ask your arms if they want to relax. If they want to relax, relax them,” a calming voice suggests as children put their heads down on their desks and follow the video’s instructions.

That’s called “mindfulness” training, and it’s usually aimed at adults. But Perrotte says it helps children shake off whatever stresses they may have brought to school, and get down to the tasks ahead.

Like learning to read.

Reading Levels And Waiting Lists

Teacher Jessica Perrotte says a surprising number of children show up to kindergarten not even knowing the alphabet. Now, after a lot of close personal attention, most in her class are reading at or above grade level.  

But Perrotte says that’s taken almost a whole year to accomplish. She says more kids would read sooner if all families could get their children into the school’s preschool program. It usually has a waiting list.

“And I’m sure it’s not just Winooski that has that problem. I’m sure there’s other communities finding that problem as well," Perrotte said. "So we are realizing, no, not everybody is going to get into that one preschool room."

Over 80 percent of Vermont's towns currently offer some subsidized preschool, but only about 38 percent of Vermont's children are enrolled. The new universal pre-K law is designed to bring more early education to more kids.

That means not every child is going to be ready for kindergarten by their fifth birthday. Most school districts, including Winooski, hold kindergarten screenings to determine if a child knows the alphabet, has good large and small motor skills and plays  well with others. But in Winooski,  Perrotte says even kids who are too young or immature for kindergarten get to enroll anyway, so they don’t fall further behind.

Keeping Up

“If they’re not ready, we’ll just have them do two years of kindergarten versus staying home because they can’t get into a preschool or daycare,” Perrotte said.

But a year from now, all children in Vermont will be offered a place in preschool or daycare.

Many schools will outsource instruction to private childcare providers who must be qualified to participate, based on a rating system.

Over 80 percent of Vermont’s towns currently offer some subsidized preschool, but only about 38 percent of Vermont’s children are enrolled. The new law is designed to bring more early education to more kids. It’s expected to cost an additional $10 million over the next seven years, and local districts and philanthropists will also carry some of the cost.

This is the first in a five-part series about expanding early education for Vermont's children.

Ready Or Not, Part 2: Ensuring Pre-K Quality

Ready Or Not, Part 3: Reaching For 'Stars'

Ready Or Not, Part 4: Teaching The Teachers

Ready Or Not, Part 5: Doing The Math

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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