According to Sue Osterhoudt, principal of Riccardi Elementary, teachers are finally getting their bearings after seven years of whirlwind changes. In the last several years, the education system has undergone a wide range of upheavals. The changes, from revised standards and teacher evaluations to more rigorous testing, have been felt across the board.
With their feet back on the ground, Saugerties teachers have designed a new system to ensure kindergarten readiness.
Saugerties’ kindergarten preparation has in years past involved more visits for students than at many local schools. Incoming kindergarteners have toured their school building the spring prior to beginning school. They have visited their kindergarten classroom and taken a ride on the bus. In addition to these visits, students have met with various school personnel for a standard kindergarten screening.
Beginning this spring, both school visits and the screening were handled a bit differently than they used to be. “We wanted to take full advantage of our two visitation days and the screening process by making the most of our time getting to know the children and their families as well as them getting to know us,” explained Osterhoudt.
Reorganizing the visits
A district committee comprised of kindergarten teachers, principals, school psychologists, social workers and occupational, physical and speech therapists was formed. “We all met and brainstormed ways we could improve the process as a whole and then we broke into specialty areas to come up with individual improvements,” the Riccardi principal said. “We all came back together and were very excited with what we came up with.”
During the first visit in prior years, students past had been taken in groups to the gym, library and nurse’s office while their parents remained in the cafeteria to hear about school rules and procedures. This spring, students still toured the school, but the parents met in smaller groups with school staff, including the speech therapist, school psychologist and principal.
These meetings were intended to help parents ready their children for September. Since the kindergarten teachers had noticed in the youngsters a reduction in attention span and a desire to be entertained rather than making their own entertainment, they suggested parents try to limit their children’s screen time.
Technology was a double-edged sword for these young students, Osterhoudt said. It’s wonderful when used for educational purposes but harmful when it interferes with interaction and socialization skills.
During the initial visit at Riccardi, groups of parents were split into parents of new students and parents whose older children already attended elementary school. This gave current families the opportunity to address concerns or questions while providing new families with basic information about the routines of school.
During the second visit, the incoming kindergarteners had in previous years visited a kindergarten classroom. While observing their future classrooms and schoolmates, they were given pre-cut shapes to use for a project.
This year, the kindergarten teachers met them in the library without the distraction of current students. Rather than getting pre-cut shapes, the incoming kindergarteners cut their own shapes. The teachers and other school professionals observed scissor skills and other fine motor tasks. They were able to focus much more closely not only on student skills, but also how well they followed a set of directions, and how the students interacted with one another and the adults.
The teachers found these changes very helpful, said Osterhoudt. They were able to gather more information about the students.
Knowing more ahead of time
Lasting nearly two hours, the screening too is different this year. Like in years past, incoming students met with a speech therapist to determine any need for services, a kindergarten teacher to assess learning, an occupational therapist to assess fine motor skills, and the school nurse. This year, they also met with a physical therapist to assess gross motor development and the school psychologist and social worker to address concerns about behavior or socialization. Children of parents worried about social skills would be able to have access to social-skills groups at the beginning of the year.
“The more we know about a child ahead of time,” said Osterhoudt, “the sooner we can help.”
The biggest change is the introduction of a kindergarten readiness camp, called Jump Start, at the school during the last week of August. Since the new kindergarteners will be in the building without other students, they will be able to familiarize themselves with the layout of the building without the “big kids” there. They will also get to know one another and learn classroom routines.
Osterhoust recalled her own apprehension about starting school. “It can be very overwhelming for a four-or-five-year-old to face multiple new challenges in an unfamiliar place for the first time,” she said, “and we want them to feel as safe and happy as possible right from the beginning.”
At Riccardi, all but one family away on vacation during the designated week expressed a desire for their children to attend Jump Start. Osterhoudt is looking forward to welcoming them. “I am very excited about this addition to our kindergarten program and I can’t wait to meet and get to know all of our new kindergartners,” she said. “They will have the entire school to themselves, including the playground, and I really hope they are just as excited as I am.”