Surge In Kindergarten Attendance Gets Transition Strategy Noticed

Ready Freddy is making quite a name for himself. Some four years after the cartoon frog made his debut at a North Side Pittsburgh Public School as the face of kindergarten transition, the model for easing children into their school careers has spread across the city, and school districts in other Pennsylvania counties, New York and Ohio, have shown interest in adopting some or all of its components.

Driving the popularity of Ready Freddy Pathways To Kindergarten Success is its record of successfully rallying communities around school readiness and significantly raising first-day kindergarten attendance in neighborhoods where only a fraction of the eligible children had typically turned out for the start of classes.

"We had such good outcomes in the initial schools that there was an interest in seeing if we could do it again, that this might be something that could be demonstrated district-wide," said Ken Smythe-Leistico, who directs the project for the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (OCD).

First-day attendance tripled at the first two schools that participated. In some years, as many as 100% of the kindergarten-eligible children in the neighborhoods showed up for the first day of classes.

Such outcomes are the result of a model that engages parents, teachers and school officials, agencies and others in the neighborhood in making the transition to kindergarten as easy and inviting as possible for young children and their families.

The initiative recognized the importance of kindergarten transition when it began as a series of school readiness projects funded by The Heinz Endowments and developed by OCD. Research suggests that how children and their families make that transition is influential in setting the tone for students’ participation and performance in school well beyond kindergarten.

But the need to develop an all-out, community-wide effort to boost enrollment and first-day attendance had not been anticipated.

“We hadn’t thought about having to back up and address enrollment,” said Smythe-Leistico. “We were looking at school readiness for both children and parents. We thought about enrollment as a procedure, a step initiating the transition process. We needed to know who was coming to school to coordinate transition events for them. But the lists generated by the schools were not accurate or complete. We didn’t realize it would be such a challenge.”

Importance of Transition

Studies suggest that long-term school success is associated with the quality of the transition children and families make into kindergarten, which for many children living in low-income neighborhoods is their first experience in a formal learning environment.

Students who attend schools that employ a process that promotes a smooth transition to kindergarten, for example, tend to have higher achievement test scores than students at schools that lack transition practices. Such practices have also been found to be important in reducing achievement gaps.

But many schools have not adopted quality transition practices. In fact, research suggests the least likely students to attend schools that employ such practices are low-income children. Yet, they are at the greatest risk of school failure and tend to benefit the most from a process that helps them adjust to the new experience of kindergarten.

Kindergarten transition can be difficult for some children. Studies suggest nearly half of children nationwide have some difficulty, such as general anxiety, trouble following directions and not having some basic academic skills. It doesn’t help if they enroll late and miss lessons taught to those classmates who started on time. Late enrollment also burdens schools and teachers who must orient and reorient students who trickle into the classrooms during the year.

The Ready Freddy model recognizes that quality transition requires not only preparing young children to enter kindergarten, but also the child’s parents or caregivers, for whom curricula for doing so is sparse. Researchers report that strong parent involvement and a positive relationship between home and school are two of the greatest predictors of school success. And greater parent involvement, in particular, is also associated with better school attendance.

The model also addresses the need to create a supportive environment for children who are making the transition to kindergarten by engaging school officials, teachers, churches, businesses, agencies and others in the community as partners in the process.

The core components of the model proved effective after four years of use with children entering kindergartens in Pittsburgh Northview on the city’s North Side and Pittsburgh Weil and Miller in the city’s Hill District neighborhood. Some modest adjustments have been made based on lessons learned from those experiences and to allow for expansion to other neighborhoods.

Those components include the “K-Club” curriculum, which was developed to help parents and children get ready for kindergarten together. It is divided into sessions, each having a theme focused on a topic important to helping children transition to kindergarten that includes a child activity, a parent activity, a parent-child interaction activity and a take-home activity.

Child-only activities give children chances to interact with one another and expose them to the kinds of experiences they’ll find in the classroom. Activities for parents provide training to help them better understand the importance of kindergarten and learn how to support their child’s education, such as how to build a relationship with their child’s school and teachers. Parent-child activities encourage quality parent-child interactions and promote school readiness in the home.

Offering such activities means little if children and families don’t participate. Kindergarten is optional in Pennsylvania, which tends to work against achieving full enrollment.

Improving Enrollment

Kindergarten enrollment and first-day attendance immediately increased to unprecedented levels in each of the schools where it has used in Pittsburgh, despite the fact that early education had not previously been widely embraced by families in the two neighborhoods. For example, about 60% of children had never been enrolled in preschool, Head Start, or other early learning programs prior to the Ready Freddy intervention.

First-day attendance jumped from about 25% to 100% in the first year of the program in the schools. Such profound improvement was seen as evidence of the effectiveness of community-wide efforts organized as part of the Ready Freddy to raise awareness of the importance of early education and help parents enroll their children in kindergarten sooner rather than later.

A community transition team of parents, teachers, principals, community leaders and others is created in each neighborhood to guide those efforts. The team comes up with ideas specific to their neighborhoods that will enhance early enrollment, acquaint children and their families with their schools and reduce anxiety among children entering kindergarten. Such projects have included school tours, free hair braiding and haircuts, books packets for the children, backpacks given to those who enroll early, making the first day of kindergarten a community celebration and putting the Ready Freddy image on pizza boxes to remind parents of enrollment deadlines.

One of the first tasks is to identify kindergarten-eligible children in the neighborhood, which includes door-to-door canvassing by volunteers. The effectiveness of partnering with agencies familiar with the neighborhood was one of the lessons learned in the past few years. Their knowledge of the families with kindergarten-aged children has helped identify significant numbers of children, reducing the canvassing workload.

Another adjustment has been to shift management responsibilities of the transition program from OCD staff to local school-based transition teams. Under this strategy, first-day attendance has been sustained at about 75% of eligible children, a slight decline from earlier first-day attendance outcomes, but still three times greater than what attendance had been prior to the intervention.

The shift in responsibility was necessary to accommodate expansion, said Smythe-Leistico. “We had only two staff on the ground, so we couldn’t run teams that are OCD-based in the new schools. Furthermore, for sustainability these teams had to be imbedded in the school. That’s when we went to a train-the-trainer model.”

Freddy’s Popularity Grows

In the fall of 2011, Ready Freddy Pathways To Kindergarten Success expanded across the city to include schools in the West End, Homewood and South Side. Schools in the Hill District that previously used the program were retained. And although the first school to use the model, Pittsburgh Northview, was slated to close and another school in the city’s North Side neighborhood was added to the roster.

In addition, the Grable Foundation, Buhl Foundation and Birmingham Foundations joined the Heinz Endowments as funders of the program.

The program has also begun to explore more effective ways to sustain attendance throughout the year in light of studies that suggest only 17% of students who are chronically absent in kindergarten are reading at grade level in the third grade. “We couldn’t walk away,” said Smythe-Leistico. “So we started looking at strategies that are being used nationally to improve kindergarten attendance.”

New year-round attendance strategies include improving parent-teacher communication and monitoring the attendance of all children in the program to identify those who consistently miss school so schools can move more quickly to help those children attend more regularly.

Recently, the Ready Freddy model has received national attention, which, in turn, has fueled interest in the transition strategy across Pennsylvania and state lines. In March, the Harvard University Family Research Project’s Family Involvement Network of Educators identified Smythe-Leistico as an emerging leader in the field and featured the Ready Freddy program on its website. In addition, a journal article was published about the project authored by Smythe-Leistico, OCD Co-Director Robert McCall and Colleen Young, OCD projects manager.

Today, OCD is partnering with Pennsylvania school districts in York, Lebanon, Lancaster, Bedford, Wyoming, Beaver and Dauphin counties to adopt aspects of the Reddy Freddy model in their kindergarten programs.

Schools in Youngstown, Ohio, Fredericksburg, Va. and Detroit, Mich. have also expressed interest. And next year, OCD will work with schools in Buffalo, N.Y., where a pilot project to adopt the entire Ready Freddy model in five schools will begin as the first stage of a plan to extend it to all 40 of schools in the district the following year.

The Buffalo project will be the first opportunity to study the transition model as implemented across an entire school district. It also offers a chance to examine attendance practices underway in Buffalo that are not currently used in Pittsburgh schools and to share data that will provide insight into how the Ready Freddy model performs in different cities.