"Everyone, grab someone's hand," said Andreina Velasco, the Children's Institute Early Works Site Liaison at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland, to a group of about 20 parents and family members of new kindergartners. The group, attendees of the Earl Boyles Early Kindergarten Transitions class, gathered around her and created a human knot. They proceeded to work out how to untie it. After climbing over tables and doing quite a bit giggling, the goal was achieved.
"Why did we do that activity?" Velasco asked.
"It was a good way to de-stress and to help us think about where we are and what we're doing right now," said Esperanza Matias. Matias, like the other parents and family members, was spending an August morning in an elementary school classroom to learn how she can help her young son succeed in kindergarten this fall. Throughout the class, the group tried many activities and techniques they can use at home to help their children focus and learn.
Both Matias and her son, Gio, spent two weeks in the Kindergarten Counts Early Kindergarten Transitions program. The program's goal is to help kids who may struggle with the transition to kindergarten reduce their anxiety about school, build relationships with each other and their future teachers, and adjust to the school routine. Coupled with daily half-day classes for the children are five sessions for parents and family members.
The program at Earl Boyles is part of a network in Multnomah County that has been rapidly expanding over the past four years. This year, 32 programs took place across the county in SUN Community Schools. The network is supported by May Cha, Early Childhood and Community Schools Linkage Project Coordinator. She provides training, tracks data to drive improvement in the program, and fosters communication among the schools.
The Early Kindergarten Transitions network is a key component of Multnomah County's Linkages Project and Cha's work. When the county first started doing linkage work in 2010, they dove into the whole spectrum of birth-to-8 services. "It wasn't long before we realized we needed to put a transition bridge in place between early childhood and the elementary years," says Cha. Portland Public Schools was seeing success with an Early Kindergarten Transitions program pilot and Cha brought it to the half-dozen elementary schools that are part of the county Linkages Project in 2011. Since then, the program has expanded to more schools each year.
Having this bridge in place is critical in helping children hit the ground running on the first day of kindergarten. Parents who participate with their children see great impact in just three weeks. Nidia Perez, who attended the family meeting sessions, says the program has been good for her son, Adan. "He used to suck his finger all the time, and is doing that less. He's also more tired and ready to go to sleep at night after spending time at school," she says.
Early Kindergarten Transitions is also beneficial for families and the school. The family sessions are an important opportunity for engagement and relationship-building from the very beginning. "The goal is to help parents understand how kindergarten works and give them tools to help their children succeed," Velasco says. She also provides them with opportunities for volunteering and leadership, and provides coaching to encourage them to engage in these opportunities.
Cha has supported the growth of the program over the past four summers. Just this year, 11 new elementary schools took part for the first time. Having the network allows them to share their results and lessons learned with each other. For example, Velasco's innovative approach to engaging families has had a countywide impact. "Andreina has transformed the family component," Cha says. "We now recognize that family engagement has to be approached with flexibility. She started bringing parents into the classroom [at Earl Boyles] and [coaching them] to show them how to support the teacher. Other schools are now doing this, too."
For the past two years, Velasco has led family engagement training for the leaders of the family sessions at the other schools in the network.
Cha says that the fast and impressive growth in the county has really been driven by the program's success. Word has spread, and there is demand for the program from parents, teachers, and service providers who work with families. "I've just removed a few barriers," she says. Most exciting for her is watching the kids who were very likely to struggle become leaders in the kindergarten classroom.
The program's impact is most clear in how it affects families. Not only do the kindergartners arrive ready to dive into learning on the first day of school, their parents are prepared to help and support them. Perez says the program has really helped her work with her son at home.
"Since I didn't go to kindergarten, it was hard to know how to get Adan ready for it. Now I know his brain is like a computer," says Perez. "The more connections it makes the more he knows."