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FINE Newsletter, Volume IV, Issue 1
Issue Topic: New Developments in Early Childhood Education

Emerging Leaders

Ken Smythe-Leistico, MSW, is the Director of Ready Freddy: Pathways to Kindergarten Success at the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development. The Ready Freddy Program was created in collaboration with Pittsburgh Public Schools, engaged parents, and multiple community partners to increase the likelihood that children will have a successful kindergarten year.

MY VISION FOR THE FAMILY ENGAGEMENT FIELD

Like many others, I have a vision that all children will walk confidently into kindergarten with the skills, experiences, and supports they need to be successful. This vision includes parents, teachers, and community members working collaboratively to ensure that all children enter school on a level playing field. Ideally, before school even begins, students and their families should (a) have registered for kindergarten on time, (b) be familiar with their new school, and (c) have had meaningful interactions with their teachers and peers. I believe how children and their families enter into the school experience greatly impacts their long-term educational trajectories.

Nationally, nearly half of all children experience some problems during their transition to kindergarten, including difficulty following directions and a lack of academic skills. At the local level, on-time enrollment and registration attendance on the first day of school are major obstacles to a quality start—for many schools, only a fraction of the projected kindergarteners are enrolled and attend class on Day One. We know from the research that when children enroll late, they miss critical components of early learning. Enlisting parents in the enrollment and transition process allows the family to recognize the importance of kindergarten, particularly getting off to a good start at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, many schools that engage in transition practices—such as arranging a day for preschool teachers to bring students on a tour of the kindergarten classrooms—fail to include families in these planned activities.

CURRENT EFFORTS TO ADVANCE THIS VISION

For Northview Elementary—an urban PreK–5 Pittsburgh Public School serving mostly minorities and those of low income—2007 began in typical fashion: Less than 25% of the anticipated kindergarten class was present on the first day of school, part of a growing trend of late and under-enrollment. Principals, staff, and faculty had to continue to orient and reorient new arrivals as they trickled in throughout the first months of the year.

As ordinary as 2007 was, the following year was anything but. In August 2008, as summer shifted into the school year, Northview Elementary was flooded with rising kindergarteners and their families. On the first day of school, everyone marveled as 100% of the anticipated new class was enrolled; many had also participated in special breakfasts, a hair braiding day, or other transition events that occurred prior to the start of school. The new students marched excitedly down the hallway to the classrooms they had already visited and saw the faces of the teachers they had met weeks and even months prior. What happened prior to the 2008–2009 school year to bring about such change should not be described as miraculous. Rather, it demonstrates the kind of success that is possible when a school, community, and parents are united in a shared purpose.

Early into the 2007 school year, school and community leaders met to propose the formation of a Kindergarten Transition Team to address the historically low kindergarten enrollment that had become commonplace for this community. The Team originally included the school’s vice principal, the director of the community Family Support Center, and two staff from the Office of Child Development, but quickly grew to include early education, health, and social service providers; clergy; and, most notably, parents of future kindergarteners. The Team worked together to:

  1. review their data on enrollment and transitions and develop new goals
  2. examine and improve the atmosphere and environment of the school to make the school parent friendly
  3. review and revise timelines and practices of registration
  4. develop and implement strategies for door-to-door outreach to hundreds of homes to find and engage all potential students and their families
  5. implement several family transition events prior to the first day of school

During the Transition Team meetings, parents strongly expressed that a “one size fits all” approach could not fully envelop the needs of their communities. After reviewing pages of nationally suggested transition activities—which included forums, tours, workshops, and other orientation activities that were deemed too impersonal—several parents pointed out that none of the items listed met their families’ needs, nor were they the types of activities they would enjoy. Per parent suggestions, the school organized a free haircut/hair braiding day before the start of the school year for new kindergarten students, which also offered teacher presence during the waiting time. This fostered a chance for families and teachers to meet in an informal setting. Additionally, a parent suggested including the lone pizza shop that delivered to an isolated public housing community in their advertising efforts for kindergarten registration. As enrollment numbers soared, parents responded that the advertisements on pizza boxes were the biggest reason they were aware of registration dates. It became clear that parent engagement in the school had begun.

"Proud Parent" Ready Freddy buttons. Proud Parent buttons displaying the Ready Freddy mascot.

The successes in Northview led to:

  • the development of the “Ready Freddy” model (see below)
  • the expansion of the community team approach into 6 new schools
  • broader community awareness activities
  • the launch of the Ready Freddy website, which provides transition resources to parents and schools
  • closer work with key district administrators

The Ready Freddy model defines quality kindergarten transition as activities and interactions that welcome families and children into kindergarten, help children get ready to learn in a formal setting, reduce anxiety, increase on-time enrollment and attendance, foster parent involvement, and create continuity of learning between home and school. The model’s action elements emerged through a combination of the literature review, feedback from the community, and on-the-ground trial and error, and include (a) Transition Teams that plan and implement community-specific, quality transition activities before school starts; (b) summer Kindergarten Clubs, targeted to the most at-risk families, that promote parent–child interactions and foster sustained parent involvement; (c) providing support to schools to create a welcoming environment for both students and parents; and (d) a frog mascot (Freddy) that helps to create awareness and recognition of the importance of kindergarten transition for parents, students, and community members.

CHANGES STILL NEEDED TO HELP ENABLE THIS VISION

Photo showing Ready Freddy footprint decals in a school hallway. Ready Freddy footprints help kindergarten parents navigate school buildings.

Too often in schools with low parent involvement, we are quick to blame parents for this dynamic. One important component of the change process that emerged during the Ready Freddy pilot was the opportunity for school personnel to have open conversations with parents to better understand what changes a school must make to become a more welcoming environment for families. For parent engagement to blossom during these first interactions with the school and its teachers, more schools must be willing to examine their own practices and take ownership of their role in creating fertile ground for relationships to grow.

In the age of video surveillance, door buzzers, and possibly even metal detectors at school building entrances, it is harder than ever for schools to appear inviting to families. As a first step to creating a welcoming environment, school personnel are asked to review the path from the street to the main office and are challenged to identify and rectify any aspects that might lead a parent to not want to re-enter the building. Once the most common barriers are tackled (lack of directional signage, parent parking spaces, or a warm greeting by staff members), teams become even more creative in designing their schools to be physically welcoming (for example, Ready Freddy schools use frog prints to guide parents to the office) and enhancing the school’s emotional connections to parents (such as identifying a specific kindergarten door where teachers and parents can meet and talk at the beginning and end of the day). When parents and schools work on this vision together, the school becomes a welcoming place to students and families alike. 

For more information about how Smythe-Leistico and his team are helping to build kindergarten success, please see the following resources on www.readyfreddy.org:

And look for Ken’s upcoming article in the American Journal of Community Psychology:
Smythe-Leistico, K. J., Young, C. P., Mulvey, L. A., McCall, R. B., Barone-Martin, C., Capozzoli, R., . . . Coffee, B. A. (in press). Blending theory with practice: Implementing kindergarten transition using the Interactive Systems Framework. American Journal of Community Psychology.


This resource is part of the March 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.

© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project