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Questions to Ask at Kindergarten Roundup


Q. Kindergarten roundup is coming up at the local public school. What are some things we should be looking for, and questions we should be asking?


It would be smart to attend at least two kindergarten roundup sessions in both a public and a private school. Then you can compare notes on their answers to these questions.


Most kindergartens, whether in public or private schools, are "child-centered." That means that they are more like a play room than a schoolroom. This is considered appropriate, unless it goes overboard into a chaotic, glorified day-care type experience. On the other hand, kindergarten shouldn't be overly structured, either. It's a bad sign if there are worksheets, desks in rows all the time, or other evidence that the kindergarten is going to consist of a lot of "seat work." Kids this age need to move around and enjoy unstructured play for a lot of the day.


As for differences, public schools are, of course, offered at taxpayer expense and are free of charge to each student, while private schools charge tuition that parents have to pay and are not taxpayer-subsidized. It is much easier to find half-day kindergarten programs in private schools than in public schools, and many child development experts prefer half-day to full-day experiences. You may have to enroll in private school if you want your child to go for the traditional half-day.


A second key difference is that most private kindergartens offer early reading instruction with a systematic, intensive, explicit phonics curriculum, while most public kindergartens do little, if any, specific instruction in the multisensory phonics skills. Those include the specific skills of listening, speaking, handwriting and reading, using phonics.


Public kindergartens expose children to reading and writing, of course, but it is in a much less systematic way that they believe is more age-appropriate and doesn't rush the child into reading too early, fearing bad reading habits. Some parents like that, but others want their children to have basic academic skills early on, since a larger vocabulary and better spelling stem from a solid foundation of basic literacy skills in the early years of school, and they don't believe that the 20 minutes per day that it takes to teach a child to read with phonics in kindergarten is too much to ask.


So you should be thinking about these differences as you attend at least two roundups, because your child's start in school is very important.


The changes in our society and in our families have created a staggering amount of diversity in kindergarten readiness in many school settings. You will see a child who is reading "real" books and able to write his or her name right next to a child who is sobbing because he or she has never been away from home before, doesn't speak clearly, doesn't know the alphabet or names of colors, and can't sit still.


Because of those challenges for the kindergarten teacher, if you have a child who is in good shape for learning, and already reading or about to, it might be a wise move to look carefully at a private school, at least for your child's kindergarten year or beyond. The cost is usually not as prohibitive as a private high school tuition might be, but that tuition can serve as a "gatekeeper" that can put your child in a classroom that is less diverse and easier for the teacher to handle.


But if having your child go to a public school is an important value for you, or if you want your child to make friends in kindergarten and go all through school with them, then you'll probably be like most families and enroll your child in the local public school, come what may.


Kindergarten roundup isn't usually designed as a marketing experience - the teachers assume that you are going to enroll your child there and aren't trying to "sell" their system - but you can treat it as a fact-finding experience on top of any books you might want to read on kindergarten, or online research you might want to do.


Sample roundup questions for the teacher:


  1. Since the children come to you at such extremes in terms of kindergarten readiness, do you group them by reading readiness levels?


  1. Do you have systematic, intensive, explicit phonics curriculum? (If they say there isn't time:) How much time per day do the kids spend on reading instruction? They say proper phonics takes only about 20 minutes a day on top of the regular storytelling time in kindergarten.


  1. How does time management in full-day kindergarten differ from half-day kindergarten? How is that extra time being utilized, and what evidence is there that it pays off for this district's children?


  1. Since we know that good handwriting comes from teaching children the position of the hand in gripping the pencil, correct posture, the position of the paper on the desk, and many other precise factors, how can the "child-centered" kindergarten classroom, with no desks, be a good place to learn how to write? Can't they sit at desks for a few minutes a day for handwriting practice?


  1. What percentage of the students in seventh grade in this district are reading at grade level? If the kindergarten teacher doesn't know, ask what kind of feedback the school district gives to the kindergarten teachers for success or failure on down the road. To be honest, in a lot of middle schools around the country, educators are blaming society and the family for the fact that a majority of the kids are not reading at grade level. But the real problem, truth be told, is what is NOT happening in those kindergarten classrooms. And what NEEDS to be happening there is proper phonics instruction . . . the most cost-effective way to teach children how to read and write.


Kindergarten roundup is supposed to focus on learning, after all. So ask these questions . . . and maybe this time it will be the TEACHERS who learn something!


Homework: You may never again be satisfied with the slowed-down philosophy of most public-school kindergartens after you read the book, The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Spalding.


By Susan Darst Williams Ages and Stages 150 2009


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