Kindergarten is important, if kids can get there

"Eighty percent of success is showing up."

- Woody Allen

By Lorie Smith schaefer

A few weeks ago, while completing 44 semester report cards for my kindergartners and tallying their absences, I noticed a troubling pattern. Some of my most at-risk students - those with language or economic concerns - had already accumulated a significant number of absences.

At first glance, you might think these families didn't care, that they didn't think school was important. When I looked deeper however, I discovered a remarkable commitment to their children's education.

I learned of one mother who was actually walking about six miles every day, walking her child to school, walking home, back to school to pick up her child and then back home again. All within two and a half hours. These parents do want their children in school, but sometimes circumstances are out of their control.

In my frustration, I asked Mike Watty, director of Education Services for Carson City School District, two questions.

• Isn't kindergarten required by the state of Nevada?

• And, if it's required, why doesn't the district provide transportation both to and from school?

With his answer, my frustration only grew. Here's what I learned:

• Although a kindergarten experience is recommended and Nevada requires local schools to offer kindergarten, children are not required to attend. In fact, Nevada children don't have to be in school until they are 7 years old.

• Districts are not required to provide any transportation. Districts offer buses as a service.

Isn't it ironic that in a time of heightened school accountability pressures and scrutiny, children don't even have to begin school until they are 7? In addition, as important as we know kindergarten is, we don't help even our most at-risk students get to and from school.

For typical half-day programs, districts provide morning kindergartners a ride to school and afternoon kids a ride home - one-way tickets. Many parents find it difficult - or impossible - to leave work to transport their children to or from school. Some don't have cars.

Local day-care providers and Carson City's Latchkey program transport children enrolled in their programs. Some parents rely on family members or arrange informal neighborhood car-pools to fill the gap. However, something as important as school attendance shouldn't depend on the kindness of neighbors.

Kindergarten is no longer a place where children merely hear stories, sing songs and finger-paint. There are no naps in today's kindergarten. There are, however, a substantial number of reading, language arts, math, social studies and science standards that the state expects kindergartners to meet within the 2-plus hours they are at school.

Every school, whether it is labeled "at-risk" or not, has children who are at risk. Furthermore, under No Child Left Behind every school is held accountable for the adequate yearly progress of its low-income and English-as-a-second-language students. These children are quite literally left behind by a system that neither requires them to be in school nor gets them to and from school.

I'm not trying to single out Carson City schools. This is a statewide issue. Most Nevada school districts operate similarly, following both precedent and the law. My concern is the contradiction in the Nevada Revised Statutes that puts kindergarten in a strange kind of limbo that even makes enforcing attendance policies difficult, let alone meeting educational standards.

I applaud Gov. Guinn's proposal of full-day kindergarten for at-risk schools. As you would expect, most research indicates improved academic and social skills in children who attend developmentally appropriate full-day kindergartens. Personally, I'd love to see full-day kindergartens in all schools.

Full-day kindergarten would mean districts would transport children both to and from school. Problem solved? Not quite. Imagine doubling the number of kindergarten classrooms at every school at local expense. The state doesn't build classrooms; local districts do. That solution, although commendable, may not be practical, at least in the near term.

On the other hand, providing transportation is a workable first step. I know budgets are always a concern. Kevin Curnes of Carson City Schools' Transportation Department estimates about $120,000 a year in labor costs, if they used buses. Certainly, there are other possibilities. Vans or other, smaller vehicles perhaps? Grants to fund transporting low-income kindergartners? But again, this shouldn't be a patchwork of make-do, temporary solutions. Nevada needs to find a way to get our youngest and most disadvantaged students to school every day.

If we believe that kindergarten is important and if accountability requirements continue to dictate high achievement for all students, we are obligated to put some muscle into the Nevada Revised Statutes to support it.

Children cannot afford to wait until they are 7 to begin school. Let's lower the age to 6. Moreover, if we truly expect to leave no child behind, we must first make certain each of them can gets to school. Every day. First things first.

Lorie Smith Schaefer teaches kindergarten at Seeliger School and learns something new every day.


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