This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Noah Himmelein wailed while he stood in line in the yard of Henry C. Lea Elementary School in University City waiting to go into his kindergarten classroom. His father, Mathew Himmelein, stood close to him.
“This is a nerve-wracking process,” Noah’s father said, “but we prepared for this.”
With Noah leading the line, the students made their way into the two classrooms as their parents followed in tandem.
But before too long, Noah, with a book bag nearly his size, was sitting on the rug in the back of Ellie Zatuchni’s classroom with his new classmates. He kept his eyes on her as she began to welcome everyone to class.
Thursday was the first day of kindergarten in Philadelphia, and it marked the beginning of formal schooling for about 11,000 children in the District. Noah was one of 60 who filled two classrooms at Lea.
These children are entering the school system at a time when the District, along with dozens of organizations and agencies, is mobilizing to make sure that they do not fall off track.
The challenge for schools like Lea is stark: In Philadelphia, which has the highest poverty rate of any big city in the United States, just 40 percent of 3rd graders read at a proficient level or better. Determined to improve that statistic, the city is calling its campaign READ! by 4th. Research shows that children who don’t reach this benchmark are many times more likely to fall behind and drop out of school.
The first morning at Lea, learning was already apparent as teachers acquainted students with the classroom space and procedures. Students gazed around in awe at the bright anchor charts and activity stations organized around the two classrooms.
“We are trying to raise critical-thinking citizens. We want our children to be able to read and write and calculate, and they need to do this in the context of the world they live in,” said principal Jennifer Duffy.
Full-day kindergarten still not universal
The state of Pennsylvania does not require its school districts to provide kindergarten. But Philadelphia, despite its perennial budget woes, made a commitment two decades ago under former Superintendent David Hornbeck.
“We were among the first school districts in the country to offer universal full-day kindergarten,” said Diane Castelbuono, the District’s deputy chief for early childhood education, who also worked in the Hornbeck administration.
“Our research is clear that students in the District who attend full-day kindergarten are more than twice as likely to remain on grade level through 3rd grade, and they have significantly higher achievement scores, better report card grades, and better attendance,” she said.
Literacy specialist Penny Silva of the Children’s Literacy Initiative, who’s been in the classroom for 35 years, was also present for the kids’ first day at Lea.
“I’m ready to set up a literacy environment and culture that facilitates caring, community, and books, books, books,” she said. Silva provides instructional support and professional development for teachers in grades K-3.
“Scaffolding needs to be intentional,” said Silva, using educators’ term for making sure that lessons build on each other. “If it’s not, that’s where our kids get lost. We need intentional teaching so that we create a common language and culture throughout all grades in the school.”
According to Duffy, the reading specialists and consultants are important because they focus on students who may already be below level. “This brings our students up to speed and builds our own capacity as teachers,” she said.
Measuring who’s ready to read
Castelbuono said it’s difficult to measure kindergarten readiness, however. “It encompasses a wide variety of skills and behaviors, from academic performance to social and emotional development,” she said.
In most years, about 60 to 70 percent of kindergartners scored “on-target” on their first Dynamic Indicators of Basic English Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment, a test for early literacy.
“This is only one measure of a small component of kindergarten readiness,” said Castelbuono.
As part of READ! by 4th, the District has been doing more targeted research on reading and why so many children are falling behind.
“Our data from the spring shows that our students struggle with phonics and phonemic awareness,” said Castelbuono. “These need to be taught explicitly, and teachers need to be skilled. We need our best teachers in kindergarten.”
Play and learning need to go hand in hand, she explained. Teachers will be using additional diagnostic tools called AIMSweb and the DRA2 to assess student growth this year.
But while some students made it to their first day, there may be hundreds more at home. The District faces the challenge of not knowing how many children are even eligible for kindergarten. Census data and birth rates can be unreliable, and the city’s highly mobile population may skew the numbers.
The District also can’t rely on figures from pre-K, because many kids may not attend programs affiliated with the District, if they go at all.
“I’m confident that we are serving most of our kids,” said Castelbuono. The District is able to know this because, year after year, kindergarten has served around 11,000 kids, generally about 700 fewer than the number of 1st graders districtwide.
“But because we are a very large district, even if we serve 95 percent of kids who are eligible, that can still leave hundreds of kids unserved. And that’s too many,” said Castelbuono.
The District’s challenge in getting more kids in kindergarten is less about awareness of kindergarten in the community and more about late registration and space in schools, Castelbuono explained.
Forty percent of families preregistered by May this year, which is about 1,000 more families than usual. Almost 7,000 families didn’t enroll their children until September, and many families register their children on the first day.
There were several new families in Lea’s office this week looking to enroll their children – enough so that the school is considering adding a third classroom.
“We had three families register yesterday,” said Christian Edge, Lea’s engagement coordinator
Castelbuono said the District is stepping up efforts to have families register early “because it allows the kindergartens to be ready for the kids and ensure that we’ll have a class that is staffed and with enough materials. It gives teachers a chance to meet with parents before the start of the school year. It’s better for kids and for school planning, and it’s cost-effective.”
The ramifications of late registration were evident in Zatuchni’s classroom at Lea on the first day, when she noticed she didn’t have enough spots for name tags on the classroom chart.
Funding for a 3rd kindergarten class at Lea would come from the District’s operating budget. In the event that a school doesn’t have room, that child would in the meantime be placed on a waitlist and directed to the nearest school with an open seat.
Officials hope that registration troubles will be alleviated through the District’s new student information system, set to launch in January 2017, which will allow parents to register online, avoiding the current paper-based, in-person protocol.
Still, Castelbuono explained the need for a cultural shift to help parents realize the importance of early registration.
“The fewer transitions a child has to make in these early years,” the better, she said.
“I hope that he begins to build up a core of knowledge this year,” said Noah’s father as he made his way out of the classroom. "And that includes learning about math, science, technology, sports, and, hopefully, art.”