Before Julie Brigman can start reading, writing and math lessons, she has to spend several weeks teaching her Barnes Elementary kindergarteners some basics: how to walk in a line, how to hold their pencils and even how to recognize the letters in their own names.

And though it’s not unusual for kindergarten to seem “all brand new” for 5- and 6-year-olds, the veteran teacher said she’s seeing more students start school lacking essential skills.

“They don’t have the same language skills we’ve seen in the past, as far as vocabulary and being able to communicate with others. … They also have fewer fine motor skills,” said Brigman, who has taught kindergarten for 14 years. “And I think the really big one right now is the social emotional (skills), not being able to regulate their emotions.”

“A lot of times we do feel like we are backing up and doing more of a preschool curriculum at the beginning of the year.”

Almost one in four Kelso kindergarteners started this school year without any of the academic, physical and social skills expected of a 5-year-old, such as knowing the alphabet, how to count, using scissors, pens and pencils and communicating and sharing with peers. Additionally, only about 11 percent of Kelso’s entering kindergartners were considered fully ready, compared to a state rate of almost 45 percent.

Kindergarten readiness is at a historic low in Kelso after a one-year blip upward in 2015-16. The steady decline in readiness is worrisome for educators.

“The challenge is time. We don’t get to add days to the school year, so if we have to backtrack on skills, we don’t have time to get them ready for first grade,” said Lacey DeWeert, associate director of teaching and learning.

Readiness delays can cause a domino effect. Students who start school without basic kindergarten skills are significantly less likely to pass their first state test in third grade —a strong indicator of whether or not a student will graduate high school on time, according to a study by the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WaKIDS).

“I think sometimes people don’t realize how important that the beginning of the school experience is. … There is so much to learn right off the bat,” Brigman said.

Teachers like Brigman say a leading reason that some students aren’t ready for kindergarten is because they didn’t attend a preschool program. These programs expose children to the skills and knowledge they’ll need for school later on.

However, poverty, homelessness and other childhood traumas can affect a child’s cognitive and social development, which also sets them behind their peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In their classrooms, kindergarten teachers “work really hard” to bridge the skills gap, Brigman said. She said she spends about six weeks on classroom basics to help students adapt to the rigor of school. Like many other teachers, she separates students into small group for activities that to provide individualized lessons for children of similar skill levels.

“For me, the biggest challenge is that you ... see kids who are not ready, but you know you still need to get them to a certain point by the end of the year,” Brigman said. “Most kids are very capable of it. That’s why I love teaching kindergarten, because they make so much progress. But it is pretty daunting.”

The teachers’ work in the classroom is helped along by an ongoing districtwide effort to reverse the downward trend of kindergarten readiness rates.

“We’ve been focused on early learning for eight years, (but) because of the data, it’s become a high priority,” said Kim Yore, head of Kelso’s teaching and learning department.

The district partners with local early learning programs such as Head Start, the Progress Center and the Cowlitz County Early Learning Coalition. It’s also applying for grants that would fund kindergarten readiness training for local daycare providers and early learning teachers.

Shelley Milligan, a kindergarten teacher at Carrolls Elementary School, said today’s kindergartners face higher demands in the classroom than their parents’ generation, which makes preschool classes all the more important.

“Having exposure to academics earlier allows students to experience more immediate success. … Children who lack exposure require more practice and repetition in the classroom as compared to those who have had experience at home, preschool or pre-K,” Milligan said.

However, only half of the students who are eligible for free preschool classes through Head Start in Kelso are actually enrolled due to the limited spots in the program. And some families might not be able to afford tuition at other daycare centers.

This year, in all new efforts to reach more families and fight back against the downward trend in kindergarten readiness, school officials are applying for more grants and working directly with Head Start to find space for more students, Yore said.

The district on Tuesday also hosted its first “Kinderpalooza,” an evening open house where parents could meet teachers and ask questions about school resources, and students could get an early glimpse of what kindergarten is like. DeWeert, the teaching and learning director and one of the event’s organizers, said more than 200 people attended.

Octavio Rodriguez, a father of three, said it was “cool the district put this on because it gives you information for where to go before the beginning of the school year. There’s no hunting for information right when school starts.”

Rodriguez said it’s been about ten years since he enrolled a child kindergarten, and it feels like “starting all over again” with his youngest son, Yahir.

Yahir will attend Barnes Elementary School next fall. The 5-year-old said he’s ready and excited for school. He spent a portion of Kinderpalooza with his mother, practicing reading sight words, such as “boy,” “the” and “saw,” from a list he got at event.

Parents play a vital role in preparing their children for school, Milligan said. Fellow kindergarten teachers Sarah Dahl and Merissa Leonard said it doesn’t take much to help get kids ready for kindergarten.

“My advice is read, read, read with your kids as much as possible,” said Dahl, who teaches at Catlin. Reading helps children recognize words, associate print with language, develop empathy and learn to sit and listen quietly—all skills students need to be considered kindergarten ready, Dahl said.

“Or ask them to pick out five oranges at the grocery store,” said Leonard, a Wallace teacher. Leonard said even simple exercises like that help students learn counting and numbers, the fundamentals of kindergarten math.

Dahl, who’s taught for more than a decade, said the “readiness gap is able to close quite well by the end of the school year” when educators and parents work together to teach their kids. She and many other teachers said it will take a “whole community” approach to raise kindergarten readiness rates in Kelso.

“If we can have the whole community in on this with teachers, we can go so much farther with our kids,” Dahl said.

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