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By Mary Niederberger

The start of the new school year is weeks away, but at Duquesne Elementary School a group of students was already in a kindergarten classroom in late July learning how to take turns, raise their hands and line up in an orderly fashion for their walks to and from the cafeteria.

Similar lessons were happening in the Pittsburgh Public Schools where 140 rising kindergarten students spent the month of July learning the social, emotional and academic skills they will need to succeed in kindergarten.

Duquesne’s kindergarten camp and Pittsburgh’s Kinder Bridge Summer Program are new initiatives that were created to help students entering kindergarten learn skills they may have missed by not being able to attend preschool fully, or at all, for the past two school years because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Enrollment in kindergarten and preschool dropped significantly locally and nationally during the pandemic.

As kindergarten enrollment started to return to normal levels last fall, the effects of those preschool absences became evident as teachers found they needed to take time away from the kindergarten curriculum to teach the skills students had previously learned in preschool.

“I know the kindergarten teachers had some difficulty really setting ground rules and setting expectations. It took them much longer this year,” says Jaclyn Keane, Pre-K transition leader and a reading specialist for the Avonworth School District. “Sometimes the academics had to sit on the back burner for a bit until we got their needs met socially and emotionally. If they can’t regulate themselves emotionally, they are never going to get that academic side of things.”

As a result, districts across the region are offering summer programs and transition activities for those heading to kindergarten this fall. For some districts the programs are new. But for others, they mark a resumption of programs that were canceled or curtailed because of pandemic restrictions.

“More districts this year are doing kindergarten camps, having students come to school and do half days and practicing standing in line, using a tray, going to lunch, those sorts of skills,” says Emily Neff, director of public policy for the early childhood nonprofit Trying Together.

‘Districts (last fall) could tell that many children did not go to high-quality child care. Teachers had to do a lot of pausing and rewinding and working on social/emotional skills and communication skills. We need them to come into kindergarten with those skills and then we can teach them academics,” says Neff who is also a coordinator for the Hi5! kindergarten readiness campaign.

Enrollment drops 

At the same time that educators are working to make sure this year’s incoming kindergarteners are prepared for the school year, they are also continuing their efforts to get children enrolled in kindergarten and preschool before the start of the year.

“Now is the time to register your children if you haven’t already done so,” Neff says.

Neff says data reported from the county’s 43 school districts as part of the Hi5! program showed kindergarten enrollment dropped by 1,049 in fall 2020. Districts regained 588 students in fall 2021, with most districts returning to normal and some seeing increases. But the countywide total was still down by 461 students.

Local preschool enrollment is still down significantly, according to early childhood experts. There were no countywide enrollment numbers available for preschool attendance during the pandemic at the time of publication. Neff says there are 25,304 children ages 3 and 4 in the county and 11,800 are eligible for subsidized preK and child care programs. Many others attend private or district-operated programs.

Pittsburgh Public Schools could be responsible for a large portion of the kindergarten deficit. Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education shows that on Oct. 1 kindergarten enrollment in Pittsburgh Public Schools fell 21% from 1,822 to 1,438 from fall 2020 to fall 2021. It increased to 1,530 in fall 2021, still 290 below the pre-pandemic level.

An NPR investigation of 600 school districts across 23 states showed that enrollment in pre-K and kindergarten declined by 13% from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

In Pennsylvania during that same timeframe, publicly funded preschool enrollment dropped by 8,200 students to 40,560, according to the State of Preschool Yearbook 2021 report from the National Institute for Early Education Research released in April. That was a nearly 17% decline at a time when a number of other states saw about a 5% decline.

The report said the “pandemic wiped out a decade of progress increasing enrollment in state-funded preschool programs,” a change that will likely affect learning gaps and other inequities.”

While much attention has been placed on the interruption of academics at higher grades as a fallout from the pandemic, early childhood educators say a spotlight should also shine on what the disruptions to preschool programs mean.

“Early childhood and kindergarten – this is the foundation of reading. This is where students become proficient in the most basic building blocks of reading,” says Andrea Croft, a kindergarten teacher and early childhood coordinator in the Quaker Valley School District. “The heavy lifting that our pre-K teachers do to make sure our students have a strong command of these skills is critical to reading success and reading proficiency by third grade.”

Reading proficiency by the end of third grade is crucial to a child’s continued academic success and can be the determining factor in whether a child will graduate from high school.

Lessons in letter sounds and line formation in Duquesne

“The playing field is totally not level if kids have not been to pre-K,” says Sara Podvasnik, who previously taught preschool in the Duquesne City School District but will teach kindergarten this fall.

Duquesne is a district of about 445 students in a single elementary building. The district struggles both financially and academically. It saw its preschool and kindergarten enrollment dip during the pandemic and not recover last fall. For the coming school year, the district has turned over the operation of the preschool to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

During her time teaching preschool, Podvasnik says she prepared the students for their entry into kindergarten. But since so few students in Duquesne have attended preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in the past two years, they’ve hit kindergarten at loose ends.

The kindergarten camp this summer was supposed to address those issues and be an incentive for parents to register their kindergarteners early. Kindergarten classes in Duquesne often don’t fill until a few weeks into the school year, which means students miss precious days or weeks of learning.

While its intentions were on the mark, the kindergarten camp fell somewhat short of its goals, drawing only about five students each day of the two-week session. At the time of the camp, 22 students were enrolled for fall kindergarten, about half the size of a normal incoming kindergarten class.

Still, those who attended got to experience what their days will be like in kindergarten and what behavior and academic expectations they will face.

During a recent session, the students worked individually with Podvasnik on such skills as counting items – “they need to be able to touch each thing as they are counting” – and identifying letter sounds. They got help from paraprofessional DiAnne Levy with holding a pencil correctly and writing their names, using scissors and creating shapes with Play-Doh.

A teacher helps a student write his name at kindergarten camp.

Paraprofessional DiAnne Levy helps Charley Simmons to hold his pencil correctly while writing his name. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

They also had free play time, during which they learned about taking turns and sharing.

There was an opportunity for a lesson on sharing when Play-Doh and utensils came out. Children reached for the utensil they wanted to help manipulate the dough. But when two students both wanted the roller, Podvasnik reminded them of the rules.

“If someone is using something, you can ask to use it but if they say no, or not now, you listen.” Podvasnik instructed.

So Charley Simmons, 5, asked classmate Carter Mersing, also 5, if he could have the roller that Carter was holding. Carter responded: “Not now.” But just a few seconds later he handed it to Charley, who accepted it with a surprised smile.

The children also learned how to use the cafeteria, selecting their food and milk and interacting with the cafeteria workers. They sat orderly at the table, used their utensils and cleaned up after themselves when they were finished eating.

To and from the cafeteria they walked quietly through the halls following whatever student was appointed the line leader. The emphasis was on quiet as some of the students held a finger to their lips while they walked.

The students also participated in the quintessential kindergarten activity of gathering in a circle on the rug around the teacher for story time and lessons in letter recognition.

Students in Duquesne’s kindergarten camp learn to use the cafeteria with teacher Sara Podvasnik. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

Over the eight days of the camp, Podvasnik watched one student develop from crying and not participating to becoming not only a full participant but one who reminded others of the kindergarten rules. She observed as another student learned to calm himself from silliness to sitting still and following directions.

“These things are going to matter a lot when they get to kindergarten,” Podvasnik says.

Edgeworth playdate with principal

Across the county in the Quaker Valley School District, kindergarten students were meeting their principals and teachers last week during district-sponsored playdates on the playgrounds of Osborne and Edgeworth elementary schools.

Edgeworth Principal Carol Sprinker hung out on the playground along with her kindergarten teachers, meeting and greeting members of the incoming kindergarten class.

It was sunny with a clear blue sky and temperatures inching into the high 80s. But the students braved the heat as they mingled and chased on the playground, just as interested in meeting their new classmates as being introduced to their principal and teacher.

“It will be really good for them to see familiar faces on the first day of school,” Sprinker says.

Some were shy and standoffish. “I understand sometimes I feel excited and scared all at the same time too,” Croft told one bashful student.

Edgeworth Principal Carol Sprinker waves to students on the school playground. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

The annual event is among a robust pre-kindergarten schedule the district maintains throughout the school year to help preschoolers transition to kindergarten, Croft says.

Those activities include community-wide read alouds, a registration event that includes a visit to the school with parents to meet teachers and staff, and a “jump start” summer program for students who have been identified as needing additional support before starting kindergarten. On Aug. 15 and 16, students will participate in a kindergarten orientation that includes games and activities in the classroom, a bus ride and lunch in the cafeteria.

Some of those activities had to be modified or canceled during the pandemic because of Covid restrictions. But so far this year they are back on track, Croft says.

Also back on track is the gathering of the district’s Early Childhood Initiative Group, which includes kindergarten and preschool teachers and other stakeholders in early childhood education. The group provides a communication channel between local preschool programs and the district’s kindergarten staff in order to provide a smooth transition for students.

“This group has been long-standing for 20 years. That was put on hold for the past two years because we couldn’t get together,” Croft said. “This spring we were so excited because we were able to get together for a meet and greet. We were able to reacquaint ourselves.”

Efforts to return preK and kindergarten students in Pittsburgh and elsewhere

Kim Russo Joseph, the incoming executive director of early childhood at Pittsburgh Public Schools, said she believes the drop-off in students in both preschool and kindergarten was directly related to the district holding classes online for the 2020-2021 school year.

Enrollment at both levels has increased since last fall’s return to in-person learning but still is not at pre-pandemic levels. Kindergarten enrollment from last fall, according to state data, was still 292 students below pre-pandemic levels. The district’s preschool enrollment in a normal year is around 1,500. Last year it increased to about 1,300 over the course of the school year and so far this year about 1,000 students are enrolled for the 2022-2023 school year.

Joseph says that most Pittsburgh students who did not attend district preschool spent much of the past two school years at home. “They weren’t in preschool or child care. We’ve heard from some principals how that made their kindergarten harder. Some of them were home for a year or two years without any interaction,” Joseph says.

To fill in the gaps for those who did not attend preschool, Pittsburgh’s Kinder Bridge Summer Program, offered to 140 students at six sites around the city, concentrated on the social, emotional and life skills students need for their transition to kindergarten.

“It covered things like tie your shoes, zip your coat. How to open up their milk carton. How to go through a lunch line,” Joseph says. “We put a big focus on social and emotional skills and being able to work with peers and how to interact with other kids. How to share and take turns and to raise your hands. We really did some modeling of lessons and acting out so kids could practice what they would do in kindergarten.”

Rising kindergarten students in Pittsburgh Public Schools had playtime during the district’s Kinder Bridge Summer Program. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Schools Early Childhood.

To recruit preschool and kindergarten students back to the district, Pittsburgh has used print and digital marketing and has a special enrollment section on its website, says district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh.

In addition, district administration partnered with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers on a door-knocking recruitment effort last month through which district staff members canvassed city neighborhoods providing information about the Pittsburgh schools.

The 47 canvassers knocked on 1,660 doors and spoke with 410 families, Joseph says. Of the targeted families about 80% were those who had at one time had students enrolled in the district’s early childhood education program. The remaining 20% were families who left the district for charter schools.

Those initial conversations were followed up by outreach from Merecedes Williams, director of communications and stakeholder engagement.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit also is struggling to fill the slots in its Head Start classrooms. In a typical year, the program serves between 1,100 and 1,200 children. As of last week, registration was at about 77% of capacity. Usually at this point in the year, the program is about 90% full, says Shannon McGee, program director of early childhood education services.

Enrollment in the AIU’s Pre-K Counts program is even further behind schedule than the Head Start program, though McGee did not have specific numbers.

McGee says there continues to be “some hesitancy to send the little ones back into the classroom.” Some of that may be based on the fact that mask mandates are still in place for Head Start programs.

The AIU faces an additional problem – staffing shortages in its early childhood program. Even with the lower enrollment in Head Start, the program is still understaffed by about 20 positions. Neff says a shortage of early childhood workers has affected programs throughout the region and is a national problem.

The AIU is in the midst of a marketing blast to try to reach parents and potential employees, McGee says.

Despite the obstacles, the AIU is continuing its efforts to fill its preschool slots because of the importance of getting children back into early education. Even if there are not enough teachers, “we will figure things outs,” McGee says.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at niederbergerme@gmail.com & on Twitter @MaryNied.

This story is a part of PLAYING THE LONG GAME: Rebounding from unfinished learning, an on going series about pandemic learning in Pittsburgh made possible by support from The Grable Foundation.