What works to help kids get ready to start kindergarten?

Encouragement.

That’s the key, says Aisha White and she’s got years of experience with the Ready Freddy program to prove it.

Ready Freddy has spent this summer, and every one since 2006, making sure local 6-year-olds are signed up for the right schools and prepared to step into those classrooms. On the first day of kindergarten, along with the United Way of Allegheny County, Ready Freddy volunteers will be outside 10 Pittsburgh Public Schools this year, cheering the kids and their parents as they walk through balloon arches and holding signs for passersby to “Honk for Kindergarten.”

The two groups are still looking for people to help cheer the kids at the annual event, which this year takes place on August 25 and 28. At each school, principals will also welcome the newcomers, introducing the staff and, in some schools, allowing the parents into the classrooms for story and photo time.

Even more crucially, Ready Freddy—a program of Pitt’s Office of Child Development—has been helping schools take other steps to ensure kindergarten attendance. It has worked with elementary schools to create welcome centers so kids don’t have to enroll in kindergarten in a noisy front office.

“If schools want to make sure they are more welcoming to parents, they should designate a time and a place, with the assistance of a staff person,” says White, the program’s director of pathways to kindergarten success. Transition events for already enrolled kids and their parents let them visit classes, meet their teachers and tour the entire school. The summer Kindergarten Club helps these budding students develop study skills prior to the school year, and teaches parents to better coach their kids.

Nationally, there is a strong correlation between kindergarten and first grade attendance, says White, and then a significant difference in achievement on tests in reading and math between the chronically absent—those missing 18 days or more a year—and more regular attendees.

By third grade, only 17 percent of those missing school too often tested proficient or advanced on basic reading tests compared to 64 percent of more regular attendees. Pittsburgh Public Schools’ own data show similar results, she says.

But Ready Freddy is changing that. When the program began in 2006 with funding from the Heinz Endowments, on-time enrollment in some city schools was as low as 25 percent. The program now targets higher-poverty Pittsburgh schools in what White calls “challenging neighborhoods.” It also fields requests from new schools for help. Today, the district’s Northview Heights, Weil and Miller elementary schools have had 100 percent on-time kindergarten enrollment over the past few years.

The United Way will be joining Ready Freddy for the kindergarten welcome event and adding nine other county schools. The organization has also expanded its attendance encouragement work to include school kids of all ages, with a program called Be There. One Be There program, the Finish Strong 30-Day Challenge, urges kids to focus on completing the school-year well. Its message: “You have 30 more days of school left. Come every day.”

This program is working too, says Christy Stuber, the organization’s volunteer initiatives director. At Pittsburgh Schiller in the North Side, which has the highest city absentee rate among its 206 students, 172 of them attended each of the remaining 30 days in 2013-14. “That was above the expectation of the school principal and social worker,” says Stuber. Overall, Schiller saw a decrease in absenteeism from 35 percent to 29.33 percent last year.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh recently completed its tenth year of Kindergarten… Here I come!. This event features a school bus and crossing guards on site, so the 300-plus school newbies in attendance get a real taste of school-time experiences. Dozens of local agencies are also always on hand to offer school help and supplies.

Notes the museum’s Manager of Educational Programs, Samantha Ellwood: “It’s such an important transitional milestone for families and kids… We want to get kids excited about this initial step in their educational career.”

Marty Levine

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press...