BANGOR, Maine — The term “school readiness” conjures visions of kindergarten hopefuls being tested on their ABCs and preschool teachers worried that every student can count to 100. But in Maine, schools blend play, learning and family to ensure that the student is not only supported but academically and emotionally ready for school.

A poster hanging at Penquis Head Start in Bangor reads: “When you ask me what I did at school today, and I say, ‘I just played,’ please don’t misunderstand me. For you see, I’m learning as I play. I’m learning to enjoy and be successful in my work. I’m preparing for tomorrow. Today, I am a child and my work is play.”

It’s a message that education advocates say is key to preparing young students, many who face challenges both in the classroom and at home.

According to the Maine Children’s Growth Council, children are ready for kindergarten when they can communicate needs, wants and thoughts, engage in new activities, follow directions, regulate behavior, demonstrate age-appropriate academic skills and respect others.

Challenges affecting their success are often socioeconomic and include living at or below the poverty level, coming from split families or non-English speaking homes. According to a report by Sesame Workshop, 44 percent of children nationwide enter kindergarten with one or more factors negatively affecting their ability to succeed in school.

“At-risk children start kindergarten well behind their more advantaged peers,” said Jerry West, senior fellow at the research organization Mathematica and director of the study. “The evidence points to an opportunity to better support their healthy development before they enter kindergarten.”

At Penquis Head Start, Mary Kay Hallett, division manager, said the biggest hurdle her students face is poverty. Helping families with everything from finding heat or food assistance to transporting students to dentist appointments is part of the job.

A family-centered approach

When Bangor resident Alysia Dorr first brought her then-16-month-old to Head Start in Bangor, her daughter was quite a bit behind her peers. She didn’t walk, and she had a hard time communicating. The staff spent months helping her practice walking, and they talked with Dorr about taking her daughter to the dentist and speech therapy.

This fall, her daughter, now a social 5-year-old, is headed to kindergarten at Downeast Elementary School. She recognizes all the letters of the alphabet, can count and sort objects. Dorr credits staff and their work incorporating the entire family for Dorr’s daughter’s success.

“This is far from being just a babysitter or child care program,” Dorr said. “[My daughter] is not just ready to go into the kindergarten classroom, she’s ready to be the teacher.”

School readiness has always been a part of the curriculum planning at Head Start. However, in 2007, it became a federal mandate as part of the program’s reauthorization. Dorr’s experience is a perfect example of how Penquis’ approach works.

School readiness to program directors means children are not only ready for school, families know about what resources are available to support their child’s learning, and schools are ready for children. For teachers, it means one day reading a book and talking about how the author is from Maine, and another day teaching children about the importance of oral hygiene.

“School readiness is much more than ABCs, 123s and do I know my colors,” Hallett said explaining that students learn important skills such as talking about emotions, sharing and participating in a communal environment.

Many of the activities are individualized to fit students’ needs. Teacher Kelley Watson, who has a classroom of 18 students, age 3 to 5, said she evaluates her students every month and uses that information to create her lesson plans. One child may need help learning to using the toilet, while another may need practice keeping hands to himself or herself.

“These all sounds like basic things, but without some of those skills, it’s very hard to enter kindergarten and be successful,” said Sue Burgess, special services manager for Penquis child development. “We want to make sure they know how to use their words, how to sit next to a peer. … School readiness is having them ready to learn.”

A push for more

Maine childhood education advocates have spent the past few years developing recommendations for programs such as Head Start, and this year, they hope to make those guidelines law. They also have pushed for legislation to fund data that would help track trends and student success rates.

Jaci Holmes, federal state legislative liaison, said she is taking the guidelines the state has recommended preschools to follow, to the state board of education this week. If approved, they would become the minimum requirements for public preschool programs.

Recommendations include requiring head teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree, an eight to one student-teacher ratio with class size cap of 16 students and requirements for the physical classroom space. New schools built would have to comply upon opening, and existing programs would have two years to catch up.

Since 2009, the number of publicly funded 4-year-old preschool programs has nearly doubled. It’s a trend Holmes credits to an increased awareness of the importance of early childhood education and a need for kindergarteners to enter school with a set of baseline skills.

“You have a wide range of children who have varied early childhood education experiences with being read to or interacting with their peers,” she said.

More than 4,900 Maine 4-year-olds are enrolled in 201 programs this year, many of which are partnerships with existing preschools or day care centers. Holmes said by the 2018-19 school year, advocates hope to have at least one in every public school in Maine.

In addition, she and others are requesting that data relating to school age students be linked to Department of Labor information and a formal assessment process be started for children up to third grade. The assessments would provide information for teachers about where their incoming class struggles or excels academically, so they can better focus lesson plans.

“It would help us look at the different learning styles of the children coming into a classroom, [its] one of multiple tools to look at who are these little ones,” Holmes said.

Meanwhile, back in the preschool classrooms, teachers are doing their own assessments and tailoring learning and activities to both the needs and interests of their young learners.

“Our job is to make learning fun,” Burgess said.

Natalie Feulner

Natalie Feulner is a journalist and “semi-crunchy” cloth diapering momma to a rambunctious toddler named after a county in California. She drinks too much tea and loves to climb rocks but not at the...