As the Kansas State Department of Education continues to take aim at preparing students for postsecondary success, that goal is being addressed at a younger and younger age. From full-day classes to readiness initiatives, kindergarten has become a focal point of reaching those statewide goals promoted by the KSDE — and teachers in USD 373 classrooms couldn't be happier.

"I think they're really excited about this change," said superintendent Deb Hamm. "They have seemed to really embrace the kindergarten readiness and the changes for kindergarten and how we approach our younger students in schools."

"Normally, nothing's been that focused towards kindergarten," said South Breeze Elementary kindergarten teacher and district grade level facilitator Ashley Best. "It's really exciting, so I was really excited to jump on board with that and I really wanted to be an advocate for our team here in Newton."

Best was part of a committee that helped guide what the state would do to gauge the outcomes in regards to kindergarten readiness, taking part in special trainings and bringing that back to fellow teachers, presenting an update — along with Sunset Elementary's Ronna Hammel and Walton Rural Life Center's Rhonda Roux — on that progress to the Newton school board earlier this week.

One of the biggest factors looked at in measuring outcomes in kindergarten readiness was the addition of a "snapshot" to get an idea of students' capabilities before they enter the classroom. As Roux put it, the snapshot helps provide insight into what gaps exist around the state in terms of early education.

While that data is not required to be sent to the state until next year, Best noted USD 373 began implementing the "snapshot" this year through Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQs) that were completed with students and parents before the first day of school.

Prior to that first day, district kindergarten teachers scheduled a 30-minute conference with each family (getting a 97 percent attendance rate) to administer ASQs that evaluated both the students' physical skills — i.e. communication, problem solving, etc. — and social/emotional condition.

Using ASQs does not lean as heavily on indicators of academic success, as it is more observational than an outright assessment, but that is exactly the point. With the "snapshot" and use of ASQs, the goal of the outcome is to see the kindergarten classroom fall somewhere between the pre-kindergarten and first grade level to help better prepare students for success as they move forward.

Though not strictly part of the kindergarten readiness outcome, something district classrooms have also taken on in line with that in-between perspective is the implementation of "imagination stations" as a way to gradually move from work on pre-kindergarten skills to tools students will need for first grade.

After studying the full-day kindergarten guide that was released by the state a year ago, USD 373 kindergarten teachers reassessed how best they could align with that model and identify what was lacking — highlighting the "play" aspect in particular and seeing an opportunity to integrate that (with the "imagination stations") into the shifting curriculum.

"What stuck out to us the most was not only does play allow for children to be creative and use their imagination, but play helps children develop decision-making skills, learn to work with others, learn to negotiate in order to solve conflict and play is also important to healthy brain development and increases physical and emotional strength," said Hammell.

Having that play aspect (i.e. setting the table, taking made-up menu orders, etc.) in the classroom also enhances the continuum effect, as Best put it, that sees kindergarten teachers treating the class like pre-school for the first few months before shifting to a kindergarten model and then reorganizing to more of a true first grade structure over the final months of the school year.

Keeping that focus on kindergarten readiness in the schools, Best noted she continues to get training on ASQs and other aspects to bring back to her fellow teachers, but they are also helping to pass on some of the skills to lead to success in that outcome to parents and others — whether through interaction at kindergarten round-up in the spring or at some sessions Best hopes to offer over the summer months.

"I'm excited that hopefully we can use this data and take a couple steps back in homes, in pre-schools, in day cares, and get them a step ahead, lend a helping hand on what they can do to help those kindergarteners be ready," Best said. "We show them some techniques to take home with their kids, provide them with materials, just somehow we can bridge that gap and get the children ready as well as they can for kindergarten."