Teachers see the benefits of 4K programs
"I can tell you which of my children are in day cares or any other kind of program …" said Lou Havlik, principal at Levi Leonard Elementary School in Evansville.
Those students know, for example, how to put on their coats by themselves.
"They have learned those self-help skills," Havlik said.
About 10 Evansville kindergarten and early-childhood teachers and administrators met recently with a few school board members to discuss what impact 4-year-old kindergarten would have in Evansville.
The school district is considering starting a program.
The overwhelming message was that 4K provides a structured environment where kids learn social and independence skills. Those skills make them better prepared for academic learning in 5-year-old kindergarten, they said.
Now, 5K teachers spend time teaching many kids how to listen to a story, wash their hands and sit at the table for a snack. Parents with only one child at home might take for granted the little time it takes to teach routine activities, but the time adds up when teachers have to teach those activities to a classroom of unprepared students, they said.
"The 4Ks are doing what kindergarten 20 years ago did," Havlik said. "So we're at a different point academically than we've ever been before in American education."
Several teachers noted changes in society, particularly family dynamics, prompting a greater need for 4K.
It's not that some parents aren't doing as much as they should, one teacher said, but families don't have the social networks available years ago. Parents are having fewer kids, and extended family members are working.
Julie Creek-Hessler has taught for 22 years in Evansville and now teaches kindergarten and first grade. She's noticed social opportunities for students changing through the years, she said.
When she started, a lot of stay-at-home moms provided play dates and peer groups for kids to interact.
"Now, I see parents arrange their schedules because they can't afford the day care—one works at night, one during the day," she said. "These children aren't getting that socializing."
Parents are overwhelmed, she said.
"I know they are struggling. Those self-help skills (for kids) … come last when you're struggling to make ends meet," she said.
Teachers agreed that disadvantaged students benefit the most from 4K, but at least one teacher pointed out that her own son needed the structure.
"Because I'm Mom, they're not necessarily going to perform for me the way they are for a teacher," the teacher said.
A 4K program provides standard expectations, they said.
Early-childhood teachers who visit day cares see different expectations for free play, but in kindergarten the students must be taught what is expected in kindergarten.
The teacher said they don't know if children who attend preschool or 4K get a lasting academic boost, but they do see the extra effort other kids need to make to keep up.
"I think they're always trying to strive to get (there)," Creek-Hessler said. "They're working so much harder to get to the level of their peers. They may level out, but they had to work so hard to get there."
Those unprepared for kindergarten end up in small groups to focus on basic skills.
Teachers admitted it takes more time to help students who are unprepared for kindergarten, but more important, they said, is the danger that a child's long-term attitude toward school could be tainted by the stress of always trying to catch up to peers.