This piece was written by our colleague Blakely Bundy. Bundy is the Outgoing Executive Director of The Alliance for Early Childhood, based on the North Shore of Chicago. We share her story here as an illustration of what is happening in too many kindergarten classrooms across our country.
A Grandmother’s Story about the Impact of Today’s Kindergarten on One Little Boy
I wanted to relate my “tale of woe” about my grandson’s experience in kindergarten this fall. I will call him William. I know that it’s a common story now, but this is a first for me on a personal level. Aside from being William’s grandmother, I am a former teacher and have been involved as an early childhood professional in several different capacities for my entire career.
Over the summer, my daughter and her family moved from Winnetka, IL, a progressive school district on the North Shore of Chicago, to a town on the East Coast. They chose that town after doing quite a bit of research on the schools and I even accompanied them and talked to teachers and administrators in three of the communities that they were considering. We thought that the town they chose was the most similar to the school system they had just left.
William, a third child with two older sisters, had had a happy, fulfilling experience at Willow Wood Preschool in Winnetka , a half-day (afternoon), play-based, NAEYC accredited program (where I had actually taught for 10 years in the 80s and early 90s). He had eagerly looked forward to going to kindergarten at Hubbard Woods School, his sisters’ beloved elementary school, which has a half-day, play-based kindergarten, with a long history of a progressive, child-centered philosophy that has survived since it was put in place in the 1920s. In our area, under the umbrella of The Alliance for Early Childhood, there are articulation meetings between the preschools and the area kindergartens each year and the message is loud and clear that the kindergartens have no academic expectations for their incoming students but hope for some social and emotional indications that children are ready for kindergarten (sitting still to hear a story, love of books, ability to wait and take turns, etc.).
The first clue that the new school was going to be different was when we learned that the first day of kindergarten would be a full day, 9 am to 3:15 pm, with no time or plans for transition beyond a reception for families in the kindergarten room two days before. The second indication was the set-up of the classroom and, while there were blocks and a small housekeeping corner, there were also a lot of folders with the kids’ names of them for “reading,” “math,” and other academic indications and posted class schedules that indicated a lot of “work” and not much play.
My daughter expressed concern to the kindergarten teacher about the lack of a transition plan and the long first day (and the teacher completely agreed, but could do nothing about it). William went off like a trooper. After a long six and a quarter hours of waiting to see how it had gone, William and his classmates marched out to the pick-up spot at the front of the school (no parents allowed into the school) or, I should say, “dragged” out. I’ve never seen so many exhausted kindergartners in my life (and all with the required large backpacks on their backs)! The next two days, William went off to school somewhat reluctantly. Though teary, the teacher emailed my daughter that he had recovered enough to participate in some of the activities, including some table work. By the fourth day, William wasn’t sure that he wanted to go back to school. There were emails from his teacher and the social worker and the social worker met us at the front door and escorted William to class. (Again, no parents allowed in).
Later that day, my daughter and I met with William’s teacher and the school social worker to brainstorm how to proceed. Calling on my many years as a teacher and early childhood professional, I suggested going back to transition procedures you might use with younger children, i.e., mom in the classroom and engaged with her child the first day; mom in the classroom but “busy” with a book or helping the teacher the second day; mom in and out of the classroom the 3rd day, etc. Alas, both because of school procedures and the fact that they already knew that it was a challenging class with many crying children who would all want their mothers, that plan was vetoed, although, again, William’s teacher was sympathetic and truly wanted to do what was best for William. We also learned that they had done an “informal” evaluation of William’s academic abilities and that he was “low.” William reported that he hated the table tasks and said to us that he “couldn’t do them” and that they were “hard.”
By the way, this is a little boy who can spend hours creating elaborate block and Lego structures, inventing scenarios for his cars and trucks, which all have names and personalities. Also, his fine motor skills are ahead of many five year old boys, as he observes and copies his sisters’ drawings. On the other hand, he is not as interested in spending a great deal of time on art projects and drawing and has not indicated an interest in learning letters and numbers yet, although he adores being read to and has a long attention span for some fairly sophisticated books, including those of his sisters.
On the fifth day of kindergarten, William locked himself in his room and refused to go to school. I raced over to their house to help my daughter. I was able to get into William’s room, but, by then, he was hiding under his bed and refused to come out. I tried to talk him out, but he wouldn’t budge. The school’s social worker arrived downstairs but my daughter wisely decided that she needed to keep “school” out of William’s safe home and the social worker departed. It’s then that we decided that we needed to find a different school for William. We knew that this was not going to work!
My daughter had asked other moms and had learned that people have dealt with the highly academic kindergarten in this town in two ways. Those who can afford it, send their children to an extra year of preschool. Those who can’t send them to two years of (free) kindergarten. At the open house that we attended, many of the boys were a head taller than William and, of course, had been “redshirted.”
We asked around and got some wise advice from a helpful early childhood colleague who happened to live in the town. She knew all about the highly academic kindergarten and mentioned that she had stopped teaching kindergarten in a neighboring town for just that reason. We eventually found a nearby preschool program with a young 5s class, which would help William with transition and also had room for him. Although that school is play-based and child-centered in their philosophy, it introduces some more academic tasks during the school year to prepare children for what’s ahead when they enter the public kindergarten.
I often say that schools in Winnetka and surrounding communities are like an “island” in a “sea” of over-tested, push-down academics and this story certainly illustrates that fact. I wanted to tell this story as one more indication of what is happening in kindergartens throughout the country. We must keep fighting and educating and working on making changes! And I understand more than ever– now on a personal level– how vitally important this work is and how many hundreds of thousands of “Williams” there are who are impacted by what’s going on in our nation’s too academic kindergartens –and who may not have families able advocate for them.