Giving Thought: Getting children ready for kindergarten
Recently, we’ve devoted this column to individuals working to effect positive change in the Aspen to Parachute region. This week we’re speaking with Suzanne Wheeler-Del Piccolo, the principal of Basalt Elementary School and one of the architects of Jumpstart in the Roaring Fork School District. Jumpstart is a five-week summer program for children who are about to enter kindergarten. Suzanne has been principal at Basalt Elementary School for 18 years, and prior to that she taught preschool through fourth grade, so she knows a few things about young kids.
Aspen Community Foundation: Please describe the genesis of Jumpstart. What was the problem you sought to solve?
Suzanne Wheeler-Del Piccolo: Every year when we bring new kids and parents to the school, it’s that big transition day when kids are dropped off for the first time and parents are leaving their kids for the first time. I’ve really noticed a gap between those families with a deep background in early childhood education and those who have had no background.
The kids who have gone to preschool know how to be dropped off and how to behave in a classroom. They feel confident and trusting, they know the routine, they know they’re in a safe place. It’s hugs, kisses and off they go. On the other hand, with the children who have never had any experience with school, there’s a lot of anxiety; there are so many unknowns for both the parents and the kids. You can see that lack of trust, that lack of experience. It can be heartbreaking to watch a family make that transition.
Jumpstart is a wonderful way to bring these families into the school community by wrapping all these positive, welcoming services around them and getting those kids ready for the K-12 experience.
ACF: How old is Jumpstart and how does it work?
SWDP: This summer will be our third year. Our first year (in Basalt), we had about 30 kids going to a five-week program each weekday from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. They experience what it’s like coming into school, having breakfast and lunch, building relationships with teachers, with other children and also with the building and the classrooms. There’s a small ratio of children to adults and we have a bilingual staff for all of those kids who are still learning English or may not speak English yet. Collectively they create this wonderful, welcoming environment.
Early on, Carbondale had kind of a condensed version of Jumpstart, just in the mornings. It has since adopted the same model as we have and so have the schools in Glenwood. So now there are about 30 kids in Basalt, 30 in Carbondale and 30 or so in Glenwood.
I’m really proud of the partnerships we’ve started with all these nonprofits through the Cradle to Career Initiative — Raising A Reader, the Valley Settlement Project, Aspen Community Foundation, Focused Kids and others. We’ve got the school-based health clinics for medical and dental checkups and we have parenting classes. The families get to meet the office staff at the schools and it’s really a wraparound community partnership.
ACF: Is Jumpstart working? Tell us about the results you’re seeing.
SWDP: First, I’ll just say that these kids (who go through Jumpstart) are coming to school ready to learn. They know the routine, they know how to sit in a circle and where the bathrooms are. It also really helps the relationship with the parents, which makes it so much easier to support them and support their child.
It’s trickier to capture actual data, and we’ve had lots of conversations about what the right indicators might be and what we want to look at. But one really nice piece is the reading data. We’re seeing good results with these kids who come in with limited exposure to academics. By the end of kindergarten, they’re doing almost as well as the kids with more experience.
ACF: What do you envision for the future?
SWDP: My real hope for the future is that all children, regardless of their background, will have equitable access to early childhood education in our communities. There is a core group of people working hard to grow preschool in this valley, either inside the public school system or out.
Over time I really hope there’s less of a need for Jumpstart. For the time being, however, I’m really proud of how this program has matured. We know how to do this, it’s working smoothly and all the partners have their role. I will say that it’s a real challenge funding this program every year, so please support the nonprofits that put on this high-quality program.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.
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