Summer Kindergarten Leap program at Holmes Makes an Impact
The first day of kindergarten is full of emotions for both students and their families. There is an excitement about starting something new, some worry about the unknown, and maybe even fear of being away from home all day. Maercker School District 60 launched a program in the summer of 2023 that aimed to help with those emotions, and create a safe and supportive transition to school for incoming kindergarten students and their families.
The Kindergarten Leap program was held for two weeks before the beginning of the school year with students attending from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. each day. All incoming kindergarten students were invited to participate in the program, with about 80 students taking advantage of it. A team of 14 teachers as well as specialists in PE, music, art, and STEM taught students in classrooms of about ten students each. One kindergarten teacher participated with the other staff coming from across the district, including instructional assistants and new teachers. Differentiation specialists Jen Walsh and Sarah Erwin were part of the team who organized the program over the summer and served as co-coordinators during the program.
“I taught kindergarten for more than a decade and I was able to dig deep into many years of the first weeks of school to identify some pieces that we could do ahead of time to help with the transition,” said Erwin. “We had our success criteria built out to really identify why we were doing this and it was just so awesome to see that success in action.”
The program replaced the traditional approach to summer school where students who needed extra support were invited due to trends that saw incoming kindergarten students having the strongest attendance. In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a stronger need for social emotional learning and relationship building at the kindergarten level. Students got to learn about the routine of the school day, played on the playground, had snacks in the cafeteria, rode the bus, and started getting used to life at Holmes instead of just focusing on academics.
“We had a professional development day for teachers to get them ready and everyone was so excited to be a part of this,” said Walsh. “On the first day of Leap, teachers asked all the kids what their dreams were for kindergarten and used those to guide their work. If someone wanted to make friends, teachers found ways to incorporate that into the day to show students that their voices are being heard.”
The first day of Leap was still a first day, and the teachers could feel the anxiety of the students, but by the third day there were no more tears. Kindergarten teachers shared after the first day of the school year that the students who attended the program were so confident and were helping to show other students around and really had a strong sense of pride in knowing how to navigate the school day.
Incoming kindergartners weren’t the only ones learning. Parents also got to participate in a session on Fridays that provided support on SEL skills, books to help students, and additional resources. With help from a School Psychologist, School Social Worker, and Occupational Therapist, parents were able to build routines and strategies around separation anxiety, attendance, and emotional regulation. The Maercker PTA also hosted a stay and play after school to give an additional chance for students and families to connect.
“It was great to be able to bring parents in and get them acclimated to us and let them know that we are their biggest fans and want to be a support system for them,” said Erwin. “We talked about being mindful of self regulation and the need to put on your own oxygen mask and regulate yourself before you can regulate a child.”
During Kindergarten Leap, teachers were able to provide highly engaging activities in the classroom to strengthen the sense of community and build a connection with students that created a positive tone around learning. Using strategies from The Responsive Classroom Approach, teachers encouraged students to share what they noticed when learning new routines which communicated the importance of their voice and increased their sense of belonging.
“We knew that the program was a success when we were in it,” said Walsh. “At the end of the two weeks, we saw kids on the playground playing games they had learned and inviting new friends to play. When school started, we could really tell that these students were so ready!”
Though it took place in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the school year, the program saw an attendance rate of 88%, which is impressive. At the end of the session, students were able to provide feedback by drawing pictures of things they enjoyed and what they learned including learning about being kind, using different classroom tools, going to different parts of the school, and playing on the playground. Parents were able to provide feedback as well.
“This program eliminated the uncertainty and anxiety my kindergartener had and may have had the first week of school and she enjoyed knowing what to expect each day and where to go,” said one parent. “I thought the program was an excellent way to introduce my child to the bus, the Holmes school building and staff, the expectations in a kindergarten classroom, and meet new friends,” said another. “I thought it was well planned and very organized with an efficient and high level of communication. I’m certain that my child is all ready for kindergarten and now he has even more confidence going into the first day.”
The program was free for all students including bus transportation, snacks and all materials for students and parents. With such a successful first year, there is no telling where the program can go from here.