Kindergartners get pumped up for school

Every year, thousands of Richmond-area five-year-olds show up on the first day of school in September -- only to be turned away.

For kindergartners, their parents soon learn, being "on time" for the start of the school year is actually too late. Because of requirements for school entrance – including proof of age, immunizations and residency – the registration process should begin weeks earlier. In an ideal world, in fact, all kindergartners would be registered by spring.

That's why superintendents from nine regional school districts gathered in Richmond in January to make a historic announcement promoting early enrollment: for the first time ever, 10 localities would share a common date for kindergarten registration.

On April 7, Harvie Elementary School in eastern Henrico will be one of the schools open for registration throughout the school day, and for evening hours as well.

Terry Hill, who is in her third year of teaching kindergarten at Harvie, has a background in early education. The prospect of a boost in spring registration attendance is welcome, Hill says, not simply because parents will receive an information packet about paperwork requirements for fall, or because future students will get a chance to meet teachers. The early registration will also provide Hill with the chance to inform parents of the all-important readiness skills that children should practice over the summer.

Last September, Hill started out the year with several students who could not distinguish a letter from a number. In the same classroom, she had students who were already reading.

"By Christmas, they were all on the same page," says Hill, while noting that with a little preparation in recognizing letters and numbers, those students could have avoided playing catch-up.

Parents who attend registration day will learn how to help their children with reading readiness, as well as with personal and independence skills -- from zipping their coats to practicing self-control.

At the beginning of the year, Hill recalls, she had one child who insisted on standing instead of sitting, and another who would enter the classroom at a run -- "from one end of the room to another, knocking things off the table."

"Sometimes," Hill observes, "they've never been in a situation where they had to sit in place or be still."

Class of 2023
Enter the classroom on a Friday in March, however, and all is orderly and calm. A class ambassador greets visitors at the door with a handshake and bravely musters a successful, if fleeting, moment of eye contact.

"My name is Nina Rich," says the ambassador shyly. "And I am going to graduate in 2023!"

After students finish a writing exercise and join Hill on the classroom's Oval Carpet, she introduces her special guests of the day: a bucket of worms from the Hill home garden. Students eager to touch a worm get a chance to pass it around; before long, a few reluctant students join in.

Even this simple exercise, Hill explains later, is a learning experience.

"It's about empowerment," she says, "and learning confidence."

Like taking turns at being the classroom ambassador, handling the worms gives children practice in getting out of their comfort zones. "It shows them," says Hill, 'I was scared to do this, but I did it.' "

Next, the students practice their tallying skills, totaling the votes of those who like worms and those who don't. A cheer goes up once the results are in: the worms win in a landslide, 15-1.

After her students leave for physical education, Hill notes that upon their return to class on Monday, they will be writing about the worm experience.

"Four or five sentences," she marvels. "I never would've thought two years ago that [kindergartners] could write like this."

Virtually all the students know at least 100 sight words and can read, as well; some are reading chapter books. But it's the parents, Hill emphasizes, who deserve most of the credit for those achievements. Although all her parents work during the day, they have supported her classroom efforts in the evenings through practice with flash cards and books.

Getting pumped
Observing her students' achievements produces mixed emotions, reflects Hill with a wistful smile. "This is the time of year I get sad. They came in on all different levels, but there's been so much growth in each of them."

At the same time, she welcomes the chance to see her students move on -- especially since she still sees many former students on a daily basis.

"The second graders come in and give me hugs," she says. "I ask the boys, 'Are you too big for a sticker?'" None of them, she adds with a smile, has turned down a sticker so far.

Not all students will move on to first grade, however. Among those who will be repeating kindergarten is a student whose enrollment was months late due to delays in getting vaccinated.

But even missing the first two weeks of school, says Hill, can set a student back. It's during those weeks that students learn the rules, adjust to routines, and begin to take ownership of the place. "Missing that piece is a big deal."

A student who enters school late will also miss out on the sense of excitement that pervades at April registration and August orientation.

On registration day, says Hill, teachers and staff will go to great lengths to fuss over students and get them pumped up about entering school. "It's a very warm first start. It lays the pathway to orientation and lets them know what to expect. They're getting comfy, getting inside the school, knowing they'll need to bring a snack and to have supplies."

By the first day of school in September, Hill points out, students who attend registration day will have already had four interactions with her: registration, orientation, and a welcoming phone call and post card. It's not unusual, she says, for those students to greet her with a hug -- "like greeting a friend again."

The well-prepared student, she adds, will also be more likely to grasp the concept of personal responsibility for his or her success, and thus be more likely to succeed in school.

"Kindergarten isn't hard," says Hill. "But you need to learn to read in kindergarten, because everything builds on that.

"Once they're reading . . . [they realize] school is not a chore. It's a positive experience, and it's fun."

Kindergarten registration will take place April 7 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Henrico elementary schools. For detailed information, including a list of answers to Frequently Asked Questions, visit readychildren.net.
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