The first foray into kindergarten can feel overwhelming for many children who have not previously attended preschool. From socializing with others to learning to hold a writing implement, youngsters with no prior schooling may struggle where their peers forge ahead.
But a lesser-known fact is that for many parents, sending their children off to school can prove equally daunting.
Enter the First Five Alameda County summer bridge program, a free, five-week school preparatory program, open to families whose children have not attended preschool. The program is designed to instill school readiness in students and parents, under the well-documented premise that parental involvement bodes well for student success.
“If you look at educational research, there’s only so much teachers and administrators can do,” said John Santoro, principal of early childhood education in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). “Parent education is really seen as something that’s as important as school functions. Teaching parents about school is really extremely important.”
Though in existence elsewhere in Alameda County for some time, the summer bridge program, funded through First Five, is new to Berkeley this year. Parents found out about the program through the district’s Latino family outreach liaison, websites like Craigslist and the Berkeley Parents Network, and advertisements around the community. Classes commenced June 20.
Through July 21, a dozen children will assemble at Rosa Parks Elementary School Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to noon, to learn, play and socialize. Over the course of the program, they will learn about numbers, the letters of the alphabet and how to color shapes with crayons.
They will learn to navigate the plastic slides, variegated climbing structures and metal rings of the school playground. They will learn how to line up, how to use the bathroom and where to hang their coats, as well as how to make friends, how to lose friends and the meaning of the word “tattletale.” In short, they will learn how to do school.
Today (Friday), it’s the parents who go to school. Each week, a speaker gives a presentation on a distinct facet of education, such as math, literacy or health. Last Friday, over orange juice and pastries, around a low-slung table with pint-sized chairs, eight parents and one English-to-Spanish translator listened intently to Rebecca Wheat, former principal of BUSD’s early childhood education and current university professor, who gave an overview of kindergarten in Berkeley, of what to expect from a child’s first taste of the next 13 years.
“One thing we do know is that children do better when their parents are involved,” Wheat said.
An overview of research literature on education, conducted by analysts at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, overwhelmingly demonstrates that parental involvement is positively related to academic achievement. The parent workshops in the summer bridge program attempt to boost that effect.
A question like how to set up a parent-teacher conference may seem self-evident to some parents but not so for many unfamiliar with the particulars of American public education.
Most of the families in the summer bridge program are non-native English speakers. Many are Mexican immigrants, including one mother who emigrated just four months ago.
Another parent, Oleg Kornilov, a post-doc at UC Berkeley, recently came over from Russia. Early childhood education is unfamiliar to him since in Russia, children begin school later, at age 7, he said.
Wheat encouraged parents to read to their children often in their native language. “Reading to your child is so important,” she said. “Children who are read to usually learn to read quite easily.”
She touched on issues of safety, diversity, and classroom preparedness and how to secure resources for kids. Parents also asked questions about their individual children’s needs. One parent wanted to know how she could sign up for after-school childcare, which is based on a sliding scale of documented income, when her family makes money under the table.
The program is about “setting the tone and letting the families know about resources,” Wheat said, at the close of the 45-minute-long session. “I think parents really learn how to be good advocates for their children and parents feel more apart of the community when they’re informed.”