Story and photos by Justin Glanville
For kids starting kindergarten, readiness is key to future success
The last time Dawn Syroney had a kid entering kindergarten, it was 21 years ago.
Back then, she says, she didn’t think much about what skills or knowledge her son needed to start school.
“I thought those first few years were his time to be a baby,” she remembers. “Then when he got to school, that’s when he’d be the big boy.”
But with her second son, Mason, now 4, her thinking has changed. That’s due in large part to the Cleveland Public Library’s Kindergarten Clubs, a workshop series that helps families and their toddlers prepare for kindergarten — through activities like games, shared meals, and learning circles.
“Kids need to know so much more than I thought,” she says. “They should be able to recognize letters, count, even be able to get along well with other kids.”
Syroney and Mason have been attending their local Club together since sessions started at the beginning of summer.
Letters and numbers are only part of the curriculum, which also teaches fine motor skills and social skills — especially important for kids who haven’t attended day care or preschool.
At a recent workshop at a branch library in Brooklyn Centre, Syroney and other parents ate a picnic-style meal with their kids. Then, the adults broke off into a discussion group where they talked with an instructor about easy ways to help kids learn numbers at home — by singing songs, for example, or counting the number of carrots or candy pieces in a bag.
Meanwhile, the kids worked with a different instructor to play a counting game with fuzzy yellow dice.
The fact that the program works with both kids and parents is central to its impact, says Rhonda Pai, early childhood and literacy coordinator for Cleveland Public Library, which runs eight Kindergarten Clubs across the city. The Clubs start in summer but run through October, to help families make the transition to school.
“Sometimes parents don’t see themselves as influencers in their child’s life,” Pai says. “This program tells them, ‘You as a parent can help ease your child’s anxiety about going into kindergarten by teaching them simple skills to help them succeed.’”
Kindergarten readiness is vitally important because when kids start school prepared, they stand a much better chance of keeping pace with their peers through grade school and beyond, Pai says.
Those who fall behind, meanwhile, are at risk of entering what some educators call the “preschool-to-prison pipeline,” in which poor academic performance leads to frustration, which in turn leads to acting out and disciplinary action. A recent study found that Ohio kids who start kindergarten underprepared are more likely than their peers to struggle to pass reading and math tests even years later.
Bags of ‘goodies’
Making sure kindergartners and their parents are well-prepared is also the goal of KinderKits, a program founded in 2016 by Cleveland kindergarten teacher Ben Colas.
When Colas started teaching at his current school, he was shocked to discover only about one out of six of his students recognized numbers. Only a single student recognized letters.
“It took us until Thanksgiving to get where I would’ve wanted to start the year,” he says.
The situation made him realize that the learning opportunities he’d had during his own relatively affluent childhood — being quizzed by his parents about the shapes of traffic signs, for example — weren’t necessarily available to his own students, who were mostly low-income and of color.
“A lot of systemic factors go into that — lack of resources in the home, not having the same economic opportunities,” he says.
He started talking to parents about helping kids learn to count and recognize letters, but he quickly realized they needed tools and help to do so. Thus was born the idea of KinderKits — brightly colored bags filled with Skittles, Play-Doh, and other goodies.
“The idea is, you can teach your kids with stuff you already have in the house,” he says. “We want parents to say, ‘The next time before we eat the pack of Skittles, let’s practice counting and sorting the colors.’”
More than 6,500 kits have been distributed so far, mostly through community centers and schools. In a state like Ohio, where 40 percent of students enter kindergarten underprepared, Colas would like to see the program expand even further — along with more structured outreach to families.
“We have a big issue, but there’s also a tremendous opportunity to leverage parents and view them as our partners in this,” he says.
Do you have a child entering kindergarten? Learn how to support them at home with this guide!
And, if you haven’t already chosen a school for your kindergartener, the Transformation Alliance is here to help! Read school descriptions and community reviews for all schools in Cleveland on our new interactive website.