STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

One way to avoid tears on the first day of kindergarten

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

A little before 9 a.m. Monday, it’s time to clean up the morning work in the KinderCamp classroom at MLK Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids.

The free, week-long program is happening at four schools in low-income neighborhoods around Grand Rapids.

At MLK, nine children showed up on the first day.  The idea of KinderCamp is to ease kids into the experience of entering kindergarten.

Sitting on a blue carpet, kindergarten teacher Tina Watson leads a discussion with her KinderCampers.

"Can you say, expectations?" she asks them.

"Expectations," they respond.

"Expectations are things that we want you to do so that you can have a great, fun, safe year of learning," she says. 

"This is their first opportunity a lot of them, for an academic setting, so it’s totally new for them," Watson tells me. "And as we know, anything new, there’s a lot of anxieties. I think the biggest benefit is to relieve some of those anxieties and fears and to help the kids feel comfortable and safe so that they are ready to learn."

Ready to learn – that is a phrase you hear a lot from people involved in early childhood education. School is not a natural human activity that kids will just pick up – like walking or talking. To learn at school, you first have to learn what school is.

That’s one of the big benefits of preschool, and why Michigan has spent an extra $130 million dollars the past two years expanding access to preschool for four year olds.

Watson says that increase is having an effect in her kindergarten classes. But this week at KinderCamp is just one more way to help kids make that transition.

"It’s cool here," says Abigail, a five year old with a bright pink bow in her hair. " I love this school."

Abigail did go to preschool. On her first day at KinderCamp, she quickly makes friends with three other girls.

Her mom, Laura Romero, tells me making friends is one of the reasons she signed Abigail up to come this week.  But she’s still worried about the start of the year. She's trying to avoid a tearful scene.

"She’s not crying now," I say to Romero. "She’s very excited."

"No, she’s not crying."

"You’re not crying yet."

"No," she says. "I’m not crying."

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Tina Watson.

This week at KinderCamp isn’t just for kids. Parents will also get information on how to stay involved and get the most out of their child’s education. They even get a portfolio to keep track of their child’s achievement all the way through high school.

Kids are also assessed at KinderCamp. They might not learn a whole lot in one week, but the exposure gives teachers an idea of where kids are so they can tailor their instruction when the year begins.

And, First Steps, the early childhood education organization that partners with Grand Rapids Public Schools to put on KinderCamp, says that in the first three years, this one week program did actually have a measurable impact on kids entering kindergarten. Assessments done by Kids First show about a 20 % improvement for kids in social and emotional skills such as playing interactively and following classroom instructions.

After one day of KinderCamp at MLK elementary, the kids all leave excited, and Tina Watson had a smoother day than she usually has on the actual first day of school.

"Everything went great," Watson says. "It was a great day."

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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