The parts of the brain that affect how children learn are already developed well before they enter kindergarten.
That includes the trillions of connections that enable them to think, focus and remember – all things that are essential to being successful in the classroom. Those skills evolve based on experience, making it critical for young children to be exposed to learning in these early stages of development.
Now, school and political leaders hope that a new law requiring all Buffalo 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten will help them hone the skills that could ultimately determine their long-term academic success or failure.
It also could pave the way for an expansion of prekindergarten programs to catch students when they are even younger.
“Having positive early learning experiences is paramount,” said Kathleen A. Fennie, the district’s supervisor of early childhood education. “It’s essential that a kindergarten program is part of our culture. It really lays the foundation for the rest of their education.”
State law generally requires school attendance for children between the ages of 6 and 16, but some educators say that this starting age is too late. By then, many children have already missed the window of opportunity to benefit from early learning opportunities.
Several New York school districts, including Rochester and Syracuse, have already enacted laws mandating kindergarten for 5-year-olds. Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed two bills allowing Buffalo and Utica to exercise that option.
And the kindergarten program is likely just a first step, as state leaders also look to expand prekindergarten offerings for 3- and 4-year-olds.
“Over time, we expect a heightened interest in prekindergarten programs, as well as a result of this legislation,” Will Keresztes, the Buffalo district’s chief of student support, said in a statement. “The district must prepare for the possibility of new classrooms for that level of instruction, as well.”
Buffalo school officials hope the law will raise awareness of the importance of kindergarten and, in turn, increase enrollment.
They also hope it will lead to improved attendance, although after a similar law went into effect in Rochester, the attendance rate actually dropped. That could be because it is incumbent on school districts to enforce it, and the only real way is to contact Child Protective Services if parents aren’t sending their children to school.
Still, the new law underscores a push for more education opportunities for the state’s youngest students. That comes as educators become increasingly aware of how brain development and what students learn in their earliest years can set the course for their academic future.
Research consistently shows that children who are exposed to literacy and other academic skills in the first few years of their lives do better in the long run. Those who are not tend to start school behind and constantly struggle to catch up. As a result, schools funnel millions of dollars into remedial programs.
“We get a lot of kids who haven’t gone to pre-K or haven’t gone to kindergarten,” said Greg Johnson, assistant principal at the Dr. George E. Blackman Early Childhood Center on Buffalo’s East Side, which serves students in prekindergarten to fourth grade. “Those kids struggle.”
Johnson and the staff at the Blackman Center are trying to prevent that, giving even their youngest students an extra boost through a summer school program that is run in conjunction with Say Yes Buffalo.
Students getting ready to enter kindergarten spend three hours a day working on the things they need to know when they enter their classrooms in September. That includes mastering all the letters of the alphabet, writing their names and counting to 20.
For some of the children, even basic tasks such as sitting still in a chair, sharing or feeding themselves breakfast are a challenge.
But leaders of the summer program know that helping students master those skills early will set them up for success in the future.
“There’s no doubt that early childhood programs, including kindergarten and prekindergarten, are critical for students to ultimately graduate from high school and go on to college,” said David P. Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.
“For some of these kids, that’s 13 years down the road. But it starts in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Now, they’re learning about Greece and Rome. They could go on to become little history majors.”
Teacher Karlitha Land, who works as a substitute for the district, reinforced that connection as she read the students in her class a story Wednesday morning.
On the most basic level, her job is to help get these children ready to start kindergarten in the fall.
But Land sees something far greater for each of her young pupils.
“I’m looking at you, and I see doctors and lawyers,” she told them. “I see authors of books and illustrators. I see the first woman president. I see so many successful people. I don’t see you as little kids. I see you as what you’re going to be in the future.”