Child(ish) Reads: The Most Important Year

It’s kinda serendipitous that I picked this book this month. The Georgia PreK Lottery opens today!

In Fulton County, Georgia, incoming 4-year-olds looking for free, public PreK enter a lottery on March 1st. You apply for the public elementary school that you are zoned in, and each school has a limited number of PreK slots. If you don’t get selected, you can be waitlisted for other schools if space allows.

I have absolutely no frame of reference for the odds of getting selected. When we moved last year, I was satisfied with the elementary school we were zoned for, looking at the GreatSchools scores and stats. From reading The Family Firm, Troy and I were able to weigh our options for how we were going to tackle this very big school year. But still, some of our decisions would be null and void depending the outcome of a lottery that is in no way in our control.

Enter The Most Important Year. I found this book just browsing Audible. I had not seen it before in a bookstore or on any recommended reading lists. While it’s not the most riveting tale with practical applications, it does shed light on a lot of the benefits and shortcomings of PreK programs. In short, it is a deep dive into the state PreK systems and what can be done to improve the quality of early childhood education nationwide.

The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children
by Suzanne Bouffard

From a parent’s point of view, I don’t think the book is a must-read. However, I did find a few gems that have helped me map out my PreK plan, as well as some things that give me a renewed respect for early childhood educators.

  1. PreK teachers, like most public educators, are between a rock and a hard place.

While some people think Pre-Kindergarten is just formal daycare, so much more goes into it. PreK is the basic foundation of your child’s early education. While the later grades can focus on solid curriculum, PreK is a balance of social, emotional, and basic motor skills, on top of providing the base curriculum for literacy, writing and math.

Yes, PreK needs to have actual subject matter to ensure that kids will be ready to go to kindergarten and all of those Kindergarteners need to be on the same page. But so much of kindergarten-readiness isn’t about who can read at 4. (In reality, only 10% of kids can successfully read prior to Kindergarten, so don’t believe anyone who says you should hold your kid back if they can’t read yet).

Self-control, executive function, self-regulation, dealing with separation anxiety; all of these “soft skills” can’t be drilled with flashcards or worksheets. But these qualities also cannot be quantified for administrators or legislature, and often are not considered important when writing state PreK policy or standards. Now top that with the trends of underpaid teachers, pressure from parents, achievement and opportunity gaps, and just simply the lack of resources.

PreK teachers have a lot of interpersonal work and are not given much time or materials to get it all done. When you find your PreK program, show your support all year because a good PreK experience effectively sets kids up for lifelong learning. Conversely, studies have shown that kids with a bad PreK experience do worse academically than kids who didn’t attend PreK at all.

2. PreK options can be crazy diverse.
Because PreK isn’t a requirement for kindergarten in most states, parents have a lot of different options for it. So if you are willing to drive your kid, you could pretty much attend anywhere you’re accepted. The book explores community programs, charter and private schools, bilingual programs, and special grant-funded programs, in addition to a sample public school PreK, all based in Boston, New Jersey, and Washington D.C.

A lot of private PreK programs will use certain learning philosophies (Montessori/Reggio Emilia/Waldorf) to guide curriculum. Others may use a curriculum-first approach and not prioritize “soft skills”. Some are targeted for certain neighborhoods, while others take a deficit-approach (what a kid doesn’t know and needs to work on) versus a strengths-based approach (what are they good at and how can we enrich that).

As a parent, do your due diligence and map out your options based on what works best for your family. The book did not cover religious schools, co-op or homeschooling, but those are also options to look into. Skipping PreK altogether is also an option. (Full disclosure: I did not attend PreK.)

3. Quality Matters
While I want the best learning environment for my girls, so does every other parent and competition can get crazy. I’m hopeful that the current administration’s expansion of PreK for All will create more PreK options and infrastructure, but for right now, public PreK programs are wrapped up in real estate property value. Yeah, this is getting political…

Higher property value = higher property taxes = more funding for public education programs in that district. But, a lot of those funds are going toward increasing technology, newer buildings and infrastructure, and high school programs; not necessarily giving teachers raises or investing in early education. In addition, public policies that promise to cut property taxes usually end up defunding a lot of public education programs.

So while a certain school may have great facilities, that doesn’t mean the teaching matches. Most PreK lead teachers are required to have certification in early childhood education, but teaching assistants do not. Classrooms that have a higher student-to-teacher ratio may not be getting the best of out PreK because their teachers are simply wrangling kids all day.

When looking for a PreK, ask if the schools assist in faculty development and continuing teacher education. Do they offer vacation days and pay raises? What’s their teacher retention rate? All of these are good indicators of a functioning, supportive program. Schools that also offer IEP services or early intervention are also statistically better performing because they create inclusive environments that put kids needs first.

4. Glaring Inequality
It’s proven that lower-income kids, especially minoritized kids, have significantly more stress than their peers from more affluent families. The stress can stem from financial insecurity, racial bias (or outright racism), or food insecurity. Their parent(s) may have inconsistent work schedules and they don’t get as much attention or conversation with trusted adults. They also may not get as much time for unstructured play or free time with other kids.

All of this stress will show up in the classroom, whether it’s in their grades, their behavior, or their attention bandwidth. These PreK programs are the first step in these kids’ formal education and their PreK teacher is probably going to be the first school personnel to tackle these issues.

The book profiles a handful of early childhood educators and some of the challenges they faced when trying to turn around programs for low-income students. These programs themselves often underfunded. Many of the teachers explained that it takes a full year to recalibrate a program and to earn the trust of students and their families. Some teachers even go the extra distance by bringing additional food into the classroom if their school didn’t offer free or reduced lunch. Other schools have grant-funded after-school programs or partnerships with other community centers to support low-income communities.

Teachers feel the pressure from administrators to close these achievement and opportunity gaps early, so students aren’t doing remedial work later on, but this isn’t going to happen overnight. In one New Jersey-based program aimed at a school district that was primarily Latino, students having trouble in class would have a personal follow-up with a teacher, development specialist, social worker, and their parent; all working together to create a scaffold. But in order to do this, more resources have to be allocated and teachers need to be trained to do this kind of social work. Otherwise, you’re going to have a lot of burnt out teachers who are spread very thin.

5. Reading is Complicated
It’s not as simple as if a kid can or cannot read. Different classrooms have different approaches and standards when it comes to early literacy. There’s no singular method to teach kids how to read.

A kid can see and identify words but can they tell you what they just read? Kids can memorize books and this a stepping stone to reading, but it’s not exactly reading. Is a kid exposed to books and reading outside the classroom? This is why arbitrary things like knowing a certain number of sight words at given age is not a good metric.

Phonics, sight words, comprehension, vocabulary, stringing together words to make sentences: In reality, all of these things come together to enable reading. This process is not linear, nor can it be done on a standardized timetable. You can’t just drill words and poof, it happens. It takes time for each of these skills to build and synergize. Have a little patience when it comes to reading. 

6. What can I do about it?
While I love that this book shows the work that our local/state/federal governments MUST do to create accessible, equitable Universal PreK, I’m left questioning what I can do as a singular parent.

Parents have very little to do when it comes to determining curriculum. They cannot be monitoring classes daily, or kept abreast of every kid’s disciplinary infractions. But here are some things that do have a positive effect:

  • Read to your kids. Ask them questions about the book you’re reading at bed time. This can increase their critical thinking and comprehension as well as build their vocabulary. Plus, conversation gives them more opportunities to enrich their knowledge.
  • Stay in communication with your PreK teacher (within reason). Asking for updates or what you can work on/supplement with your kid can be a big help. Keep these conversations positive and honest.
  • Ask your kid questions about their day. Not just what they learned, but ask about their friends. Do they have a test coming up? Are they feeling nervous? A kid who dreads going to school at this age is a red flag.
  • Community service. Participate in fundraisers. Bring snacks and supplies to school. An active parent network goes a long way in supporting teachers and improving programs.

I know it feels like you have so many choices but none at the same time, and depending on where you live, navigating the public education system isn’t entirely straightforward. The best thing you can do as a PreK parent is to be an advocate and support system for your child.

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