ELSMERE – Kindergarten students who could benefit from a transition year before beginning first grade will have that option beginning next fall at All Saints Catholic School. The Elsmere school is launching a pre-first grade that will prepare youngsters academically and socially for the changes that come with first grade.
“We’ve had students who’ve repeated first grade, and I think if they’d had this extra year of developing, both academically and socially, they would not have had to repeat first grade,” said Diana Thompson, All Saints’ principal.
“Looking at the students who have come through, we have found there’s a need. Some kids need another year of maturity, another year to help them socialize better.”
Thompson and two first-grade teachers at All Saints, Michelle Budd and Donna Mills, presented the idea to Louis DeAngelo, the diocesan superintendent of schools, who was receptive. They had researched the concept and could not find a similar program in Delaware at any school, public or private. There are pre-first programs in Pennsylvania and in Baltimore.
DeAngelo said he had experience with pre-first programs before he arrived in Wilmington several years ago. It was a success, and he is optimistic it will work in the Diocese of Wilmington.
“It’s a great opportunity for those students not ready for first grade but who have mastered some of the skills needed for kindergarten,” he said.
Thompson notified the other Catholic school principals of the program a few weeks ago. It will be open to students from any school with the understanding that the student will return to his or her home school for first grade. All Saints is not looking at this program as a way to poach students from other schools, she said.
“If they have one or two kids that need this, we have the program,” she said.
The ‘gift of time’
Budd has been a kindergarten teacher and knows some of her students could have used the transition year. The pre-first program does not mean the student is being held back; these are children who would not benefit from repeating kindergarten and the same lessons.
“It’s really the social skills,” she said. “They just can’t handle, maybe, the structure of a first-grade classroom. You go from tables to desks. Some kids just aren’t ready for this.”
Another change is the length of the day. While All Saints and several other schools offer full-day kindergarten, many public schools and some privates have half-day. Adding three hours to the school day is a big jump.
Thompson is hoping school principals will work with their parents and refer students to the All Saints program. Parents will make the ultimate decision.
“The parents have to agree, but I think that gift of time is so important to some children,” Thompson said. “I always use the analogy of a train. You want to see them as the engines. The kids that are struggling will always be the cabooses. Another year will maybe allow them to be the engine to pull everybody else along.”
Mills believes there are parents who will welcome this opportunity. She said she has seen the “cringes” on the faces of kindergarten parents when they are listening to first-grade teachers tell them what is expected. First grade is much more rigorous than kindergarten.
“I see their faces and it’s ‘oh, are we ready for this?’ For those parents and for those children, I think some of them would have welcomed the idea of another option,” she said.
Parents of students who may not be ready for an immediate progression into first grade are doing their children a favor by enrolling them in pre-first, Mills said. They will gain the skills necessary to transition into first grade confidently, where they can be, as Thompson said, the engines.
All Saints will continue to research existing pre-first programs elsewhere as it develops its curriculum. While not repeating kindergarten skills, the first half of the year would build on them, Thompson said. The second half would be heavy on phonics and numbers. It would be structured around All Saints’ science, technology, engineering and math curriculum.
The program will help the children’s attention, self-esteem, coping and decision-making, Budd said, “so that they can build that self-confidence, so they can take the risks that they need to learn. If they’re always at the bottom of the pile in first grade, then school’s not a fun thing for them. You’ve laid this foundation that maybe carries through. Even if they do mature, they just have this negative feeling about themselves and about school.”
It would also benefit those children who go straight to first grade who may be more advanced academically, Mills said.
For more information on the pre-first-grade program, contact the school at firstname.lastname@example.org or (302) 995-2231.