Metro-east kindergarten students face tougher academic expectations

By the end of kindergarten, 5 and 6 year olds will be able to count to at least 100, know capital and lowercase letters and their sounds, and know about 40 “sight words” such as “I” and “love.”

That is, if they don’t know those things before they start school in the fall.

Public school districts and private schools have started registering next year’s kindergarten class. Teachers want incoming parents to know a few things:

▪  Students must be 5 years old by Sept 1. to enter kindergarten, but that’s the only entrance requirement.

▪  They don’t have to know the alphabet or be able to count to 20; although it’s nice if they do.

▪  Teachers say some students come to school with no prior class or group experience at all, and that’s OK.

Teachers warn that this is not your kindergarten experience. Academic and expectations for prior socialization — or at least the ability to sit when asked and stay in line when required — are high. Kindergarten is the new first grade, they say. Teachers will be evaluating their students within the first weeks of school in order to place them in reading groups best suited to their needs.

“It was a different kind of day 16 years ago,” said Ginger Schantz, of her first year teaching kindergarten. She is a kindergarten teacher at Renfro Elementary in Collinsville.

A handful of area kindergarten teachers surveyed mirror their counterparts in a survey by the University of Virginia, as reported by Education Week. In that survey, more teachers are spending three hours or more of each day in whole-class activities, more are using a reading workbook daily, and more are using math worksheets daily.

In the survey, 62 percent of teachers think children should know the alphabet before they start school; compared to 29 percent in 1998.

“On day one, our expectations are very high,” said Karen Thomas, the kindergarten instructional coach at East St. Louis District 189’s Miles D. Davis Elementary.

Miles Davis kindergarten teacher Kia Eiland-Brown said “it’s no longer a place where we take naps.”

Her class of 25 includes 11 Hispanic children, most of whom get separate instruction for reading and English as a Second Language instruction. She also has a bilingual aide in her classroom. Workbooks in her room include a Spanish-language version.

Academic standards

In East St. Louis, the students at Miles Davis have a routine that includes “The Daily Five” that is heavily focused on reading skills. During that time, they can read to themselves or others and practice “authentic writing” where they are given a prompt and can write or draw a picture to tell a little story.

They work on words and rotate use of a tablet as part of the curriculum designed to build their reading stamina.

Eiland-Brown says she can get a feel pretty quickly at the start of the year as to what the students’ skill levels are, and students are monitored throughout the year with a test the school’s teachers created. That test, given several times to accommodate what the children should be learning, has them identifiy colors, shapes, capital and lowercase letters, numbers and a growing number of “sight words,” which are high-frequency words that students should know on sight.

Schantz and Kelly Stirnaman, also at Renfro, say kindergartners will know about 40 sight words at the end of the school year. Students are evaluated regularly throughout the year to make sure they’re on track to reach all their goals.

Early on in the school year, teachers will match students with similar reading abilities together. Those groups range from those who are learning fundamentals of letters and letter sounds to those who are writing sentences.

Dividing the classes of about 24 students allows students to help one another and also for teachers to know “where to teach to,” Schantz said.

Formal rest time is a thing of the past for kindergarten students; though some teachers allow for quiet time.

“There’s so much expected; we just have stuff to do,” said Aly Ringhofer, a fourth-year kindergarten teacher at Blessed Sacrament School in Belleville. “But they’re so little; they can’t go that hard all day.”

Sometimes she has students rest their weary heads in a dark room for a few minutes.

Most of her students will already know their letters “and the majority of the letter sounds” before they start school, she said. Many Blessed Sacrament students attended preschool there and are already attuned to what Ringhofer called “the expectations of school.”

The Renfro and Miles Davis teachers see more variability in their incoming classes.

“All the kids come in at so many different levels,” Schantz said, noting it’s up the teacher to find ways to keep them all challenged.

Stirnaman said they strongly recommend preschool, but Schantz was quick to say “we’re not big sticklers on ‘everybody must.’” They estimate about 75 percent of their kindergartners have had some exposure to a structured setting of daycare or preschool that has better prepared them for a more rigorous kindergarten day.

“Parents get it now,” Schantz said of the importance of preschool.

“Academic expectations are much higher now,” Stirnaman said. She clarified that while students benefit from preschool, she’s also had students who had no formal schooling before kindergarten who have done just fine.

Renfro teachers have seen one other major shift from their first days as teachers: a lot more students are coming in with glasses. Registration includes physicals as well as eye and dental exams, and eyesight issues are caught earlier.

Social growth

But on those first days of kindergarten, it’s not just what they know but also how they interact with others.

The youngest kindergarteners will be barely 5 years old, while others will turn 6 in the first months. Social expectations include those honed in preschool or daycare, such as standing in line and being able to focus. Some know to walk quietly in the halls, Ringhofer said, but at this young age all are still learning to get along and play together.

At the same time, “there’s a lot less playtime in kindergarten. We get down to business,” Ringhofer said.

In that survey by the University of Virginia, less than a quarter of teachers have a water or sand table in the classroom; and about 70 percent have an art area. That figure is down from 92 percent in 1998.

Today’s kindergarten student is likely to have a day of math and reading worksheets. Area classrooms have tables or clustered desks and may not have dedicated art areas.

“I don’t have an area (dedicated for art),” Schantz said, “but they always have an opportunity to create.”

By the numbers, teachers that have a dedicated “dramatic play” area or water or sand tables in their rooms have also dropped, but teachers say they haven’t disappeared from the classroom.

Eiland-Brown said she uses snap-cubes, which the kids use to build and create, in math lessons, and students can take art supplies back to their desks.

But those water and sand tables — those were a mess anyway, the Renfro teachers said with a laugh. Now, if they want to teach float versus sink or other science, teachers use a tub of water or smaller amount of sand and demonstrate more.

Mary Love, the school improvement specialist for District 189, said it’s the Early Learning Centers and Head Start programs that are more play-based now, and kindergarten “is more structured.”

The Virginia survey also showed that the percent of kindergarten teachers who spend three or more hours a day on teacher-directed whole-class activities had doubled from 1998 to 2010, to 32 percent. Schantz and Stirnaman agreed with that; they do a lot of whole-class teaching.

Stirnaman said she teaches whole-class activities in 15 to 20-minute increments.

Parental ages are trending downward too, some East St. Louis teachers say, and grandparents are more involved in the child’s day-to-day activities.

“Back in the day we had a lot more support,” said Love, who taught for 35 years. “Grandparents are helping parents who are having to work one or two jobs.”

Fewer parents are “coming in to see how their child is doing, I’ve seen that drop,” Eiland-Brown said.

Kindergarten transition

Renfro Elementary and Miles Davis teachers have some tips to help incoming kindergartners and their parents acclimate to the new challenges with practice this summer.

  • Practice using pencil and glue
  • Practice knowing and writing the letters in the child’s name
  • Use apps and online programs like or, which are free, or to practice phonics and number recognition.
  • “Take them places where they have to think,” said Renfro Elementary teacher Ginger Schantz, adding that car rides give them opportunities to ask questions and get answers.
  • Drive them by the school, and talk about kindergarten in an exciting and upbeat manner.
  • Talk to the future kindergartener about how he or she will get to school and get back home.
  • Attend kindergarten orientation, introducing your child to his or her teacher.

Targets for kindergarten

The Children’s Reading Foundation offers age-appropriate targets for school readiness. East St. Louis District 189 includes the foundation’s “Targets for Kindergarten” in its registration packet. According to the foundation, success in school includes these abilities for a 5-year-old:

  • Name 10 to 15 letters and their sounds
  • Speak in complete sentences
  • Repeats the first sound in a word
  • Prints his or her first name
  • Counts to 20
  • Names and sorts items by color, shape and size
  • Understands concepts such as more and less
  • Can concentrate on a task for five minutes
  • Follows simple directions