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Pushing the early learning curve

A classroom kindergarteners gather groups classroom Thursday Illinois Park Center for Early Learning Elgin. February 21 2013  | Michael

A classroom of kindergarteners gather in a groups in a classroom Thursday at Illinois Park Center for Early Learning in Elgin. February 21, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:33AM

In the hallway of Illinois Park Center for Early Learning in Elgin, one kindergartner sitting at a tiny desk swung his legs shyly as a substitute teacher asked him if he was ready to take his letter test over again.

“I think so,” he said, before correctly identifying the letter “A.”

In a kindergarten classroom for English Language Learners, students sat cross-legged on the floor, reading a book along with their teacher and guessing at the words on the page from the pictures. “Vamos al parque,” they chorused after a picture of a park; “Vamos a la biblioteca,” a picture of the library.

In another, a boy shared the baby blue house he’d drawn in his journal, “Mi diario de la comunidad,” with his tablemate: “Amigo?”

His friend affirmed, before coloring his own page the same blue, “I like it.”

In the corner of an English-language classroom down the hall, three students climbed the four steps to the top of a little pillow-strewn loft. Each had a picture book under his or her arm.

If reading is fun, “It’s much more fun to read in a loft with pillows,” said Elgin School District U46 Director of Early Learner Initiatives Julie Kallenbach.

All are remarkable scenes, Kallenbach pointed out as she made her way through the hallways with Illinois Park Principal Apryl Lowe, given “these kids had no letter recognition when they came in. Now they’re writing in their journals.”

That’s the difference early childhood education can make, she said.

And that’s something politicians at the national, state and local levels all are realizing and focusing on, starting with making sure students are in school at kindergarten.

The Illinois General Assembly is considering a bill to lower the age at which children are required to attend school, from 7 — when many start second grade — to 5.

“People are realizing if we don’t get the kids in school and invest in them young, we won’t get the results,” Kallenbach said.

Surprised at law

That bill, Senate Bill 1307, was filed by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, on Feb. 5 and was referred to the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 14.

Lightford said recently on Public Television’s “Chicago Tonight” show that she was saddened to learn Illinois schoolchildren simply do not have to go to school until they turn 7. Many of her colleagues were surprised as well, she said.

That came especially because those lawmakers have been investing time, money and effort into programs such as Preschool for All, which reaches students as young as 3 or 4, she said.

That’s something Kallenbach said she thinks is “a good idea because it raises the expectation that starting schooling at age 5 is important.”

“It’s kind of the same concept as mentioning college and talking about college. It becomes an ingrained expectation,” she said. “If parents know it’s important to start in kindergarten, then the expectation for school is there.”

According to Kallenbach, kindergarten teaches students how to get along with their peers and explore and think about problems. It teaches them vocabulary and literacy. Mostly, it teaches them “how to do school,” she said.

Terri Cronin, principal of the deLacey Family Education Center in Carpentersville, said, “If children do not develop those good habits of attendance early, they tend to not develop them. Poor attendance could grow and become more of a problem.”

Local enthusiasm

Still, Kallenbach said she has some questions about SB 1307. Among them: What about parents who feel their 5-year-old is not ready to start kindergarten? Are school districts ready to meet the needs of all those students, who may be at different points developmentally?

And in District 300, Bill Doran, principal of Westfield Community School in Algonquin, said, “I personally don’t think that it’s necessary legislation.”

“In my 20 years as a building-level administrator, I have never come across a situation where I can specifically remember that someone didn’t send their child to school until the age of 7 because that’s what the law reads,” Doran said.

In fact, when U46 opened registration earlier this month for 80 spots in its first extended-day kindergarten program, a tuition-based program, it registered 69 students in the first week, Kallenbach said.

So far, 20 families have registered their children for a similar program next year at Westfield called Kindergarten Academy, Doran said. The school typically gets four to eight inquiries a year about starting students as young as 4 in kindergarten, he added.

And at Gilberts Elementary School, also in District 300, Kevin Sawyers of Gilberts said he got in line at 3:45 a.m. Thursday to register his child for extended-day kindergarten. Another Gilberts woman said that line was 42 deep by 5 a.m., an hour before registration started.

Because of space limitations in the building, Gilberts has only one extended-day kindergarten class with 27 spots.

District 300 spokesperson Allison Strupeck confirmed there was a line when Principal Craig Zieleniewski arrived at 5 a.m., something that’s not unusual when it comes to kindergarten registration.

“Every year, we have more parents signing up for our programs. That’s something that has grown,” Cronin said.

Other initiatives

District 300 “has always been a proponent of early childhood education,” Dorn said, and U46 has strengthened that with community partnerships through the “Give Me 5” initiative it announced about a year and a half ago.

But that’s not just local.

In his State of the Union address less than two weeks ago, President Barack Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America.

The president’s proposal, available on, would use federal and state monies to send 4-year-olds from all low- and moderate-income homes to preschool. It also would invest in a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership to expand programs that allow nurses, social workers and other professionals to make home visits to screen children up to preschool and help educate parents, according to the website.

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children … studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own,” Obama said.

“We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”

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