Kindergarten pic

Holden Buterbaugh, a kindergartener at Chapel Hill Elementary, counts buttons during online learning last week. Kindergarten enrollment is down in Douglas County and across the nation amid concerns about the pandemic. While kindergarten is not required in Georgia, experts say it is critical to a child’s future success and that virtual learning is better than not attending at all.

Kindergarten enrollment is down across the country, with many parents choosing to keep their children home amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Experts say the skills 5-year-olds learn in kindergarten are crucial to students’ future success.

The downward trend in registration this year has been seen in Douglas County and in school districts across the country, from Florida to California and in neighboring Fulton County, according to a recent report from Scripps.

In Douglas, there were 1,532 students signed up for kindergarten on Aug. 9 of last year, according to statistics provided by the school system. This year at the same time there were 1,047 kindergarteners enrolled, a drop of nearly 32%.

Portia Lake, spokesperson for the Douglas County School System, pointed out that many parents wait until after Labor Day to enroll their children.

While enrolling in kindergarten is not a requirement in Georgia, Melanie Manley, assistant superintendent of student achievement for DCSS, stressed its importance in a child’s overall education.

“Kindergarten is a critical learning experience, and what students learn there prepares them for a successful academic experience,” said Manley. “In kindergarten, students will learn how to read and write. What begins as recognizing letters, letter sounds, and sounding out words leads to students ultimately reading phrases by the end of the school year. Kindergarten offers a rigorous experience to prepare students for the next grade level. It builds the foundation for their future academic endeavors.”

Dr. Felicia Baiden is an assistant professor of education at Mercer University. Baiden is a former elementary school teacher who now teaches kindergarten literacy and other courses to future teachers in Mercer’s Tift College of Education.

Baiden said most students enter kindergarten as “emergent readers” who are developing prerequisite reading skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics. She said they’re also learning various concepts of print and distinguishing between a letter, a word and a sentence. In addition, kindergarteners are learning high frequency words, Baiden said.

In math, Baiden said kindergarteners learn “one-to-one correspondence,” which is an important education concept where students learn to count each object in a set once. Kindergarteners also develop a basic understanding of addition, subtraction and place value, she said.

“When they enter first grade, they’re expected to be on a beginning reading level at that point,” Baiden said, adding that they should be able to decode phonetically spelled words and read at least 100 high frequency words. “But it’s difficult to get to that beginning reading stage unless you have those foundational prerequisite reading skills accomplished during the emergent reading stage. And in terms of numeracy, addition, subtraction and place value skills continue to be built upon once they get to first grade. Therefore, kindergarten offers students the opportunity to develop the foundational reading and math skills pertinent to their academic achievement and mobility in subsequent grade levels.”

Baiden said it’s understandable that many parents want to keep their children at home during the pandemic.

And she said that new kindergarteners can still learn the skills they’ll need in first grade and beyond through digital learning.

Baiden said all students “benefit from hands-on learning experiences,” which she notes are easier to do in a traditional classroom.

But she said Google Classroom like Douglas County is using and other online tools provide ways for students to interact and be actively engaged in the learning process.

She said the “interactive reading process is still very important and it can still take place in a virtual format.”

For instance, she said teachers could still incorporate read alouds or audio books and engage students in discussions surrounding those texts.

Baiden said she teaches her teacher candidates to connect with students and incorporate activities that build classroom community, such as a daily morning meeting, creating a “space where students feel a sense of belonging and feel comfortable sharing what’s going on in their lives and what’s important to them.”

“Kindergarteners have high energy,” she said. “They also have rapid spoken language development. They need opportunities not just to sit and listen and look at a screen. They need opportunities to actually interact and share their thoughts and ideas. Building oral language is definitely critical to reading development.”

She said parents are their kids’ first teachers and that whether classes are in-person or online, it’s important for teachers to collaborate with parents and learn what their child’s strengths are and their “hopes and dreams” for their child.

“Some students don’t attend preschool or pre-kindergarten, so kindergarten may very well be their first experience with school.” Baiden said. “Therefore, at this level, kindergarten teachers are positioned to inspire a love for learning. That is so important to students’ academic success in kindergarten and beyond.”