Just two weeks into Kindergarten Boot Camp, the ordered behavior of the 5-year-old trainees could make you forget that as many as one half of them had no classroom experience.
Some hadn’t known the right way to hold a book. Some hadn’t known the letters in their names.
“Put your marshmallows in your mouths,” Freedom School teacher Crystal Turner said Friday. Each of her eight pupils, arrayed to pass through the hall, puffed their cheeks with the imaginary marshmallows, cinching their lips.
“Now walk softly. We’re walking on pillows.”
They tiptoed out, hands behind their backs, one boy adding the precarious gymnastics of stepping between tile cracks.
As with every piece of Kansas City’s community-wide campaign for early learning, the search for programs that work is clouded by the reality in the number of children and families still out of their reach.
Some 120 children have been gathered into the “boot camps” divided among four of the nonprofit Kansas City Freedom Schools’ summer sites, but the program was prepared with potential grant funding to serve 200.
The Kansas City Public Schools knows, by the number of children who arrive each August not ready for kindergarten, that there are far more than a thousand children who need this kind of preparation.
That’s why the school district partnered with the Freedom Schools, said Jerry Kitzi, the district’s director of early learning. It’s why it’s looking for more ways and more partners to grow.
“A ton are not ready,” he said. “Easily 40 percent (of the district’s kindergartners) come in not knowing upper- and lower-case letters, colors and shapes … not having social and emotional readiness.”
Next summer, he said, he’d like to see 1,500 children in kindergarten-prep programs.
A commission on early learning, launched by the district and joined by a heavy-hitting slate of civic leaders, is at work this summer trying to piece together answers across the spectrum, from birth to third grade, to prepare successful students.
Mayor Sly James called the work a moral imperative, essential to the city’s future economic strength.
The commission has begun imagining a universal network blending programs and resources already at work. It’s contemplating measurements and data to encourage what works, and an outreach effort to spread the opportunities to the families that need them most.
That’s attractive to parents like Ellen Moorer, who wants the best for her 5-year-old son, Ethan. He was at work with the other children in the boot camp.
“I want him to enjoy learning,” she said. “I want him to be ready.”
That first day of camp was an emotional one, said teacher Brandi White. Many of the children, shaken at having to break their attachment with their mothers, cried.
Day Two may have been even harder, she said. The curiosity the children had about their first practice at how to stand in line, how to walk, how to sit for lessons and other procedures met the reality of routine.
“They were seeing, oh, this is the way it’s going to be … this is every day,” White said.
It’s not easy. There are still the little interruptions.“I’m thirsty.” “Can I get my backpack?”
There’s the girl staring at the ceiling, wagging her shoes, clicking her toes together. There’s the boy resting his head down, eyes against the heels of his hands, yawning.
But the teachers are quick to corral their attention. And by Week Two many were anticipating the rituals, sometimes prompting the teachers when they forget, White said.
Like a girl named Maleah, who reminded White that it was her turn to bring up the end of the line, making sure the lights are out, doors properly closed behind.
“I’m the caboose! I’m the caboose!”
The children want, and need, the routine, teacher Karnissa Caldwell said. They want to know what to expect.
“It helps calm their anxiety,” she said.
In its place rise the voices of children calling out for their favorite songs. “The alligator song!” “Thebear
song!” They’re calling back the names of games that get them practicing phonics and words and numbers.
“They get excited and they’re engaged,” Caldwell said.
It is exciting for the teachers, too, to be wide open in their share of the work the whole city is being called to join.
The children are ready, Caldwell said. “You can push reading.”