Preparing for kindergarten before the first day

(From left to right) Laura Lopez and Martha Villavicencio, parents of incoming kindergartners, talk about free literacy app Vroom with Shana Zamikoff, member of the support outreach team for the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading at Alta Vista's kindergarten roundup on Tuesday. [Herald-Tribune photo/Yadira Lopez]

(From left to right) Laura Lopez and Martha Villavicencio, parents of incoming kindergartners, talk about free literacy app Vroom with Shana Zamikoff, member of the support outreach team for the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading at Alta Vista's kindergarten roundup on Tuesday. [Herald-Tribune photo/Yadira Lopez]

Kindergarten is the new third grade. The expectations for kindergartners are getting higher and higher, Principal Barbara Shirley told a crowded room of parents at Alta Vista Elementary.

Elementary schools across the county are hosting kindergarten roundups to welcome families of incoming students. The first day of school is more than four months away, but the district is doubling down on its efforts to promote school readiness through new initiatives such as kindergarten readiness bags that encourage parents to help prepare their kids for school long before day one.

The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is handing out kindergarten readiness bags to  families of incoming kindergartners at Title 1 schools. [Herald-Tribune photo/Yadira Lopez]

The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is handing out kindergarten readiness bags to  families of incoming kindergartners at Title 1 schools. [Herald-Tribune photo/Yadira Lopez]

"Our goal is to make sure kids are reading by grade level by third grade, but we know it has to happen early on because if students are already starting school behind then that gap has already formed," said Patti Brustad, assistant principal at Brentwood Elementary.

Brustad, who sits on a district task force dedicated to early learning, says more and more children are coming into school without basic skills such as recognizing letters and numbers. The task force has spent months brainstorming ways to help parents teach their children the basic skills they need for kindergarten.

"We're looking at things that are easy for parents to use with children whether they're in the car driving, sitting at home or waiting at the doctor's office," she said.

The kindergarten readiness bags, donated by the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, contain magnetic letters, flashcards, bilingual books and other free resources for parents. The bags are being handed out during kindergarten roundups at Title I schools throughout the school district.

Beyond the ABC's

DOWNLOAD A PRINTABLE PDF OF THIS KINDERGARTEN READINESS TIP SHEET IN ENGLISH OR IN SPANISH.

DOWNLOAD A PRINTABLE PDF OF THIS KINDERGARTEN READINESS TIP SHEET IN ENGLISH OR IN SPANISH.

Andrea Jackson, a kindergarten teacher at Alta Vista, says that that kindergarten used to be where kids would start learning to identify letters and numbers, "but they now have to come in with those concepts because by the second half of the year, we're already decoding words in the classroom."

But while it's helpful to have students learn those foundational skills before they start kindergarten, there's a lot more to school readiness than just knowing the ABC's and 123's, says kindergarten teacher Jessica Mamros.

"They need to be socially and emotionally ready," Mamros said. "Without that, learning doesn't happen, or it happens much more slowly."

Screening your child for learning or developmental delays before they start school is another important step to making sure they're kindergarten-ready, added Megan Mays.

A kindergarten teacher herself, Mays says testing her own son for learning disabilities before he started school helped her be a more informed parent and secure the resources he needed.

"If children start kindergarten with the resources they need, they're much less likely to fall behind," Mays said.

Brustad says that this year, Sarasota's elementary schools have committed to using a universal screening tool to help assess a child's literacy skills. Screening is not mandatory, but interested parents are offered the opportunity to schedule a screening when they enroll their child in kindergarten. The answers help teachers understand what their students know and don't know.

"Our goal is to be able to see if our efforts in the next few years are making a difference and if more kids are coming to kinder get ready for school," Brustad said.

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