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Ready or not: Meeting kids where they are

People ask, “How do you know when you’ve finally made it — when you are a Ready School?” You never get there because if you are truly being a Ready School it means meeting the needs of whoever shows up at your door. And every year you are going to have different kids and families coming through your door, so you have to change up what you do based on the needs of who’s there.

In August, nearly 30 kindergarten teachers from across the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School district convened in a church fellowship hall in Clemmons for three days of intense professional development.

The agenda was packed with training sessions aimed at one goal:

Helping kindergarten teachers and their schools be better prepared to meet the needs of all children who walk into their classrooms.

The Power of K summer institute is one of the many initiatives of the WS/FCS’s Ready Schools program. Created out of a 2007 statewide initiative of the same name, Ready Schools works with local schools in Forsyth County to create learning environments and curriculum strategies that meet the needs of all children starting kindergarten.

At the heart of the Ready Schools philosophy is a simple but significant reorientation of the traditional classroom expectation:

Instead of approaching the first day of school wondering if the child is ready for school, the expectation should be is the school ready for the child.

“We know we have children coming to kindergarten who have not had strong experiences prior to that for lots of different reasons, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s lack of opportunity, whether it’s lack of resources, whatever it may be, we have children who come to kindergarten really behind,” said Eva Phillips, a former kindergarten teacher and current director of the Ready Schools program. “We try to address that with our Pre-K programs [in the district], but we don’t have enough Pre-K programs for all the kids that need them. So we have to make sure we know how to support these kids well.”

That means at the start of any given school year, students step foot in the kindergarten classrooms at different points on the developmental scale.

“The little girl who comes from poverty, who comes with not much prior experience, walks through the door the same time as the little girl who has had every opportunity in the world and is already reading,” Phillips said. “And they both are in the same class. And by the end of the year they both have to get a level D in reading. What this little girl [in poverty] needs is very different than what this little girl [who has had opportunity] needs, and we have to meet both of their needs.”

According to Phillips, the Ready School model emerged in North Carolina from a 2007 Department of Public Instruction task force, created in response to the 2000 report from the Ready for School Goal Team and the 2005 report from the National Governors’ Association on school readiness.

According to Phillips, the task force was convened by State Superintendent Dr. June Atkinson; Dr. Karen Ponder, then president of the NC Partnership for Children; Dr. Carolyn Cobb, then director of the Office of School Readiness; and other early childhood specialists and leaders from across the state. The group crafted a response to the two reports to chart a pathway to get more North Carolina schools ready for all children, regardless of their developmental level and early-childhood experiences. The pathways to school readiness and a definition of what makes a Ready School were endorsed by the State Board of Education in 2007.

During this time, Phillips had left the classroom and joined the Department of Public Instruction to head up another statewide initiative: the Power of K Kindergarten Teacher Initiative.

“We realized kindergarten was struggling as a grade level across the state,” Phillips said.

According to Phillips, in 2006 the group — co-lead by Dr. Amy Scrinzi, who now works in DPI’s Office of Early Learning — reached out to thought leaders, practitioners, and researchers from across the state to craft a position statement on kindergarten learning, the first in the state since 1989.

“So many things were coming down from everywhere about making kindergarten less developmentally appropriate, meaning less child-centered, less play-based,” Phillips said. “[The trend was moving] to a much more teacher-lead, didactic formal … a more traditional [classroom] experience for kids.”

“What we know is that research tells us that is not how young children learn,” Phillips said. “Young children need to be active, they need to talk, they need to play with their new ideas, to bring in the information they learn from the teacher and use it in meaningful ways, for it to make sense to them.”

In the process of meeting and gathering information on the position statement, the task force also learned about other issues surrounding kindergarten education in the state. One of those issues was the need for greater professional development for kindergarten teachers.

“The other thing we realized was that kindergarten teachers felt really alone, especially those that were trying to hold on to appropriate practices for five-year-olds,” Phillips said. “…. So we realized we needed a network of teachers that could support each other.”

That realization lead Phillips and Scrinzi and the task force — comprised of teachers, administrators, and early childhood consultants, and including Dr. Sharon Ritchie of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and director of FirstSchool — to launch the state-level Power of K Kindergarten Teacher pilot program in 2007. Funded by DPI, the original initiative required a three-year commitment from participating teachers.

“We created this network of 37 kindergarten teachers across the state,” Phillips said. “We really dug into what do we know about children. How do they learn best? And, if we know this about children, then what do our classrooms look like for them and how do we [create] that in a world of accountability and higher expectations for everybody? How do we keep a balance of high-academic expectations — which we want to have — but do it in appropriate ways? The how and the what of teaching.”

Part of the requirement of teachers who participated in the program was to return to their districts and spread the word, to become, in Phillips’ words, a statewide network of “teacher-leaders.”

“At the same time that the Power of K stuff was happening … there was also the Ready Schools initiative that was starting at the state level as well,” Phillips said. “They were happening at the same time, which was really quite exciting because part of what we know about kindergarten is that the only requirement for starting is that you are five-years-old on or before August 31. You don’t have to know all your ABCs; you don’t have to have been on fantastic education trips before you show up.”

“Whoever you are, you are coming to school,” Phillips continued. “So it’s, yes, we want you to have the best experiences you can have from the time you are born until the time you show up to kindergarten. But whoever you are at that moment, you are welcome in kindergarten.”

“It’s really not, ‘Are our children ready?’ — though that’s part of it,” Phillips said. “The whole Ready Schools process was thinking about readiness in a bigger way: Are schools ready for the children who walk through their doors?”

When the Department of Public Instruction launched its Ready Schools initiative in 2007, local districts were invited to participate in bringing a team together of local educators and community members. DPI provided each district’s team with training and facilitated conversations about what it means to be a Ready School.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools was one of those districts and its Ready Schools team was led by Smart Start of Forsyth County. And while many of the teams created by the local districts dissipated over time, the Forsyth team kept going.

“The goal of that team was to think about the readiness of our schools, the readiness of our communities, the readiness of teachers and principals, and the readiness of children,” Phillips said. “And what do we do as a community, as a school system, to be doing all that we need to, to meet the kids’ needs.”

Fast forward to 2011, DPI’s Power of K pilot program had ended and Phillips had accepted a position as a professor of education in the birth through kindergarten program at Winston-Salem State University.

She was approached by WS/FCS kindergarten teacher and former Power of K teacher-leader Susan Choplin and asked to join Forsyth’s still-active Ready School team — one of the few left in the state.

In 2014, the Ready Schools team received start-up funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust to create a full-time position to lead district-wide efforts to get more elementary schools ready. Phillips, given her background at DPI with both the Ready Schools and Power of K initiatives, was offered the position and accepted. Ready Schools was then made a full program within the WS/FCS system and Phillips became a full-time employee of the school district.

“People ask, ‘How do you know when you’ve finally made it — when you are a Ready School?,'” Phillips said. “You never get there, because if you are truly being a Ready School it means meeting the needs of whoever shows up at your door. And every year you are going to have different kids and families coming through your door, so you have to change up what you do based on the needs of who’s there.”

“It’s more like this continuum of readiness for kids and families.”

The 2007 DPI Ready Schools task force defined a Ready School as:

A ready elementary school provides an inviting atmosphere, values and respects all children and their families, and is a place where children succeed. It is committed to high quality in all domains of learning and teaching and has deep connections with parents and its community. It prepares children for success and work in the 21st Century.

Phillips shared a powerpoint presentation that included a more succinct definition of a Ready School:

Ready schools do all that is necessary to assure the success of every child.

The state defined eight areas a school must address in its K-3 curriculum and supports to become a Ready School:

  • Leaders and leadership
  • Transitions
  • Engaging environments
  • Effective curricula, instruction, and child assessment
  • Respecting diversity
  • Family, school, community partnerships
  • Teacher supports and adult-learning communities
  • Assessing progress and assuring quality

That definition and those eight pathways are still what guides the work of WC/FCS’s Ready Schools program. They are the measures by which Phillips and her team track progress and measure success.


And it is not by chance that leadership is at the top of the list.

“The Pathways are things like leaders and leadership. What do our leaders in our schools … need to be able to lead their school toward being more ready?,” Phillips said. “It’s things like understanding early childhood development. We have a lot of administrators and principals who are in our schools that don’t come from a early-childhood background. They are middle-school or high-school folks.”

Phillips learned from her work at DPI that for an initiative like Power of K to be a success, teachers needed principals to be on board and fully invested in the process. However, Phillips is quick to point out that for leaders to lead, and change the culture of their schools, they need help too.

“What do we need to do as a community or a school system to provide support for these administrators to become knowledgable and understand how early learning looks really different than even later elementary school learning?” Phillips said. “What does that mean for your school? … How do we help principals reach out to the community that feeds their school? How do we help them make connections and build relationships so that it is really a community of people who are coming together to support kids.”

Professional development

In addition to supporting school leaders, Phillips also knows the importance of supporting teachers, specifically kindergarten teachers. Those teachers are the ones who first come into contact with kids entering the system and they are the ones faced with teaching to a wide range of abilities. As she learned working on the statewide Power of K initiative, kindergarten teachers can feel isolated from their peers at the other grades in the elementary system and they are the ones who see firsthand the impact quality early-childhood experiences can have on a child’s success from kindergarten onward.

That’s why in Forsyth County, the teacher supports and adult-learning communities pathway for the Ready School model is focused on professional development. And it’s the reason Phillips and her colleague Susan Choplin revived the Power of K Kindergarten Teacher Initiative at the local level.

“What do teachers need? What does professional development need to look like for kindergarten teachers? What do we need to do so that teachers are ready for whoever walks through their doors?,” Phillips asked. “That’s where Power of K fits in.”

According to Phillips, there are more than 200 kindergarten teachers in Forsyth County alone. Phillips and Choplin decided to replicate the state model, opening up the first year of the program in 2015 to about 30 teachers from across the county. The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust stepped in and provided funding through Great Expectations, a multi-year initiative aimed at helping all children in Forsyth County reach age-appropriate developmental milestones in the first five years of life.

“The school system is the place that will house the children we are trying to reach through the Great Expectations initiative, ” said Joe Crocker, director of the Trust’s Poor and Needy Division. “Specifically, those children from economically-disadvantaged households.”

Crocker understands the importance of preparing teachers to adjust their pedagogy to the individual needs of each child. A program like Power of K provides teachers the skill set they need to help those children who may not have had access to quality early-childhood learning experiences.

“Teachers know all kids do not come into their classroom at the same level–some need more than others,” Crocker said. “We need to help these teachers prepare for kids who they may not otherwise be ready for,” 

The Power of K program was one of the first grant recipients when the Great Expectations initiative launched last year. It was one of the initiative’s foundation grants, those initial community investments viewed as key to helping more children in Forsyth County enter school ready for success.

The August Power of K Summer Institute in Clemmons was the second annual. Last summer’s institute was a grounding experience, introducing teachers to the concepts and theories that are the foundation for a Ready School model. This year’s institute was focused on content expertise and curriculum development.

It was an agenda that included topics like “Integrating the Development of Executive Function & Metacognition into Daily Practice,” “Purposeful Play and Choice,” and “Balanced Literacy in K: Writing with Young Children,” just to name a few.

“Last year, we spent the whole year thinking about those foundational skills that we needed to make sure everyone was on the same page about, so we went all the way back to child development 101,” Phillips said. “What do we know about three, four, five, and six year olds? What do they like? How do they learn best?”

“This summer we are building on the foundation we started last year, and are digging more deeply into things like mathematics with young children,” Phillips said. “As well as things like balanced literacy. Yesterday, they learned a lot about all the different components of literacy — guided reading, read a-louds, shared reading, reading workshops — all the different ways that you teach literacy to young kids. Today they are focusing on writing.”

Phillips is quick to praise teacher Susan Choplin for the success in replicating the Power of K in Forsyth County. According to Phillips, the Office of Early Learning at DPI is supporting six kindergarten classrooms across the state to serve as demonstration classrooms for teacher observation and development.

Susan Choplin is one of those demonstration teachers.

According to Phillips, Choplin’s classroom at Walkertown Elementary in Winston-Salem is a demonstration site in which any teacher from across the state can schedule a time to visit and have a guided observation.

Not every county has a Ready Schools task force or program. According to Phillips, back in 2007 when the Ready Schools initiative started at DPI, roughly 80 percent of the LEAs in the state brought together a Ready Schools team. Over time, without support, many of those teams faded away. Today, she isn’t sure how many are still in existence, and wonders if Forsyth County is the only one.

“The reason it happened here is that Susan Choplin kept pushing for it,” Phillips said. “She is so dedicated to doing what is right for children. She’s not going to stop thinking about this. It is important work.”

“We have got to do better for our little kids,” Phillips continues. “If we want to have great test scores in third grade, if we want to have successful kids, we have got to do what is right in these Pre-K through third-grade years.”

Connecting with families

Another important pathway for transforming a school to a Ready School is community and family engagement.

“How do you help teachers become better connected to the families of the children in their class?,” Phillips asked. “What strategies are needed? What policies need to be in place so teachers can go make a home visit so they can meet new kids coming into their school? How can we do that in a safe, positive way? And how does the community help with that and how does the school system help with that?”

According to Phillips, research supports the benefits of home visits as a successful strategy for getting to know families and kids prior to the start of the school year.

“That family sees [the teacher] as a real person … interested in my kid and me,” Phillips said. “And you are so interested that you are going to come out to my house and you are going to hang out with me for a while and we are going to talk and get to know each other.”

And visits don’t always happen in the child’s home. According to Phillips, a McDonalds could be the setting of a teacher-family introduction.

“It’s this way of building really natural partnerships, and real and authentic relationships with kids on their term and on their turf,” Phillips said. “We know that so many parents have had bad experiences in school, so they are coming with their new little one and their memories of school aren’t good. It’s an uncomfortable place for a lot of families to be.”

Another area where the Ready Schools team is trying to improve access and opportunity is helping Forsyth County families and children successfully transition into the school system. For many children, their first time in a school-like setting is the first day of kindergarten.

As Phillips noted, children enter the classroom with a vast array of experiences and at different developmental milestones. For those children whose families could not afford a high-quality childcare, that first day also means adjusting to a new and different social setting, unlike anything they have experienced before. The result might be undue anxiety and stress, which can further amplify the achievement gap between some children and their peers.

To improve the transitional phase for the county’s children, Ready Schools has partnered with Forsyth Promise, a community-wide initiative to create a “cradle-to-career infrastructure” in the county. The groups agreed to work jointly on improving school transitions through the Forsyth Promise Kindergarten Readiness Collaborative Action Network.

Out of that collaboration came the Ready Freddy campaign, an effort to increase community-wide awareness about kindergarten registration and transition.

This summer also saw the launch of Pathway to K, another Ready Schools initiative to help children prepare for kindergarten. The program is tailored for children with no pre-school experience, most of whom were drawn from the county’s N.C. Pre-K waitlist, and Title 1 and Head Start eligible children. At ten schools across the district, more than 200 rising kindergartners spent three-weeks in a kindergarten-like setting.

Teachers and assistants in the program had early-childhood backgrounds, either as preschool or kindergarten teachers. There was a bilingual parent coordinator to work with Spanish-speaking families. And in those schools with a high-level of Spanish-speaking families, the group placed a bilingual assistant onsite.

For a child who had a pre-school experience or robust early-childhood learning experiences, the first day of school might not seem like a big deal. But for students without those opportunities, the mundane moments of the school day can be confusing and anxiety inducing.

“If you’ve never been in school, you don’t know what it means when the teacher says, ‘Line up,'” said Pathway to K director Vanessa Osborne. “Or how to make a choice at lunch with the cafeteria worker standing there. [One goal of the program] is just giving them those experiences so when they do come to school everything is not foreign and a little bit of that anxiety is relieved.”

And it can be just as confusing and anxiety inducing for new parents.

Osborne and her team included classes for parents as well, seminar-like settings that ran concurrently with the children’s classes. The parent engagement component meant working with parents to establish relationships and help them think more broadly about what kindergarten readiness means. It meant getting parents to think about topics like self regulation, the emotional and social impacts of starting school, making good choices, and sticking with a task.

In addition to contacting parents whose children were on the N.C. Pre-K waitlist, they also sent information to every family of the more than 3,000 children enrolled in summer school in the district. Osborne and her team theorized if a family already had a child at a school they might be more likely to bring a sibling who was starting kindergarten in the fall. The also worked with local agencies and churches to get the word out. From the N.C. Pre-K waitlist they got about 100 children enrolled. Another 125 came from their community outreach efforts. Throughout the process, Osborne and the Ready Schools committee kept their focus on recruiting children who had not had a pre-K experience.

According to Osborne, who was one of the original participants in the Power of K state-level group, one of the biggest barriers to parent participation was transportation.

“If someone said they couldn’t make the sessions, that was the reason,” Osborne said.

“Because of seat-belt laws in North Carolina, we cannot transport four-year-olds, so they cannot be on our school buses without having actual seat belts or booster seats,” Osborne said. “We don’t have enough school buses that have those options on them.”

Osborne and her team worked with parents who had to be at work before the 8:00 am summer start time, allowing them to drop off their children at 7:45. Or if they were going to be late for pick up, staff members made a arrangements to accommodate the parents’ schedule. For parents with their own transportation, those logistics were able to be worked out. But for those families without transportation, there were no options.

Most of the more than $300,000 funding for the Pathway to K program came from Project Impact. The group also received a $12,000 grant from to purchase age-appropriate books to send home with parents. Churches and other organizations volunteered to stuff new backpacks with educational materials each child could take home with them at the end of the three-week program.

Staff at one of the 10 schools participating in the Pathway to K program asked parents to write a note to Osborne and her team. Below are some of those notes from the families whose children were helped. 

One note says, “This was the perfect way to transition my child into school.” Ready.

Please let us know in the comments if you know of other Ready School programs around the state.

Todd Brantley

Todd Brantley is the senior director of public affairs at The Rural Center. He formerly served as director of policy and research at EducationNC.

He grew up in Randolph County where he attended Farmer Elementary School, Randleman Middle School, and Randleman High School. Todd attended Randolph Community College before graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995. He received a master’s in theological studies from Duke Divinity School in 2002 and a master’s from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Prior to his work at The Rural Center and EducationNC, Todd also worked as the associate communications director at MDC providing strategic communications support for several programs, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Partners for Postsecondary Success and the Developmental Education Initiative. Todd was part of the writing and research team that produced the 2010 and 2011 State of the South reports. While a graduate student, he interned at The Story with Dick Gordon and was the editor of The Fountain, the alumni magazine for the Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He was part of the research and writing team that received the Governmental Research Association’s 2014 Most Distinguished Research Award for a report on the use of telepsychiatry in rural areas. He was a co-author of How the Triangle Gives Back, a 2008 report that examined local philanthropic and charitable giving in the Research Triangle region. His writing and research has appeared in the Daily Yonder; Insight, a publication of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research; and NC DataNet, a publication of The Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A native of North Carolina, Todd currently splits his time between Raleigh and Pikeville, where he helps maintain his wife’s family’s farm. He says, “As a product of this state’s systems of public education, from secondary, to the community college system, to our public postsecondary system, I have seen firsthand how important these institutions are for the social and economic wellbeing of this state and its citizens. Regardless of whether you are a new resident or a native, a parent or not, we all benefit from the fruits of our current system of public learning, and the hard work and foresight of those who came before us who understood that, regardless of political affiliation, North Carolina needed to be a national leader in access to quality education for everyone.”