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Building bridges

A happy hum of activity filled the kindergarten room as children and their parents perched on kid-sized chairs and cut, pasted and colored. Literacy was the theme for this Bridges to Kindergarten event at Bay View Elementary School and the famili...

A happy hum of activity filled the kindergarten room as children and their parents perched on kid-sized chairs and cut, pasted and colored.

Literacy was the theme for this Bridges to Kindergarten event at Bay View Elementary School and the families who attended made simple books, flannel boards for storytelling and snowmen decorated with each child's name.

The program is for families in the Proctor and Hermantown school districts who have children slated to start kindergarten next fall. Several events are scheduled during the school year to help prepare these preschoolers and parents.

"Kindergarten will be a new experience and we wanted [our son] to feel comfortable with the changes," said Jennifer Harnell of Proctor as her 4-year-old son, Ben, and husband, Lowell, worked on making a storyboard with a pizza box and felt on Dec. 5.

The event, which was repeated at two other schools, is part of a larger effort to help children become better prepared for school. The Hermantown/Proctor Early Childhood Coalition, the event's sponsor, is part of the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative. The initiative includes 64 grass-roots coalitions around the state, including 10 in Northeastern Minnesota, that are working on dozens of projects to help families with young children.

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GETTING READY

Fewer than half of Minnesota children are fully ready for kindergarten, according to the Minnesota Department of Education's School Readiness Report. While a majority of beginning kindergarteners was found to be proficient in physical development skills, fewer than half were proficient in the skills needed for personal and social development, language and literacy, the arts and mathematical thinking.

The Hermantown and Proctor school districts took part in the report's study in 2004 and had similar results.

School readiness issues affect families across all income levels, said Lori Fichtner, coordinator of the Hermantown/Proctor Early Childhood Coalition.

"It's not a reflection on poor parenting," she said. "Perhaps it's a lack of resources getting to kids."

School readiness doesn't mean children know all their ABCs, she said. Some skills they need are being comfortable away from their parents, interacting with other children and concentrating on the teacher.

"If they come into school with those skills, then they are ready to learn other things," Fichtner said.

The coalition is reaching out to families and providing information to help children become ready for school, Fichtner said.

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One effort is Bridges to Kindergarten, which offers several free events for families, including math and literacy nights. One session features a panel of teachers and other experts who answer parents' questions about kindergarten and how to build children's skills before they enter school. Another session focuses on children's social and emotional development. Parents also receive a monthly newsletter.

The coalition also reaches out to licensed child-care providers by offering visits from a licensed early childhood teacher. Its next project is an online parent support group.

"We're trying to get fingers into every aspect in our community," Fichtner said.

EASING THE TRANSITION

Kindergarten teacher Stephanie Kallio said it can be tough for children who aren't ready to learn.

"You want them to come in excited and thrilled with everything you do and have this love of learning," said the Bay View teacher. "If it's a struggle, it can take a toll and they can have a very tough time just adjusting."

Kallio likes Bridges to Kindergarten because children become familiar with the kindergarten classroom and teachers, and teachers get to know the children and their families. "It's so important to ease the transition," she said.

At the recent literacy night, Kallio went from table to table to chat with kids and their parents.

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Lia Rust of Proctor said her 4-year-old son, Bo Dardis, is excited about attending the program's events. "I think both of us need this transition from day care," she said.

Rust has enjoyed meeting school staff and the other children and parents. She also has found the sessions useful in giving tips on how to help her son get ready for school.

Elizabeth Schroeder of Duluth said the program has helped her 4-year-old daughter, Melissa, prepare for kindergarten.

"She feels like a big girl when she comes here," Schroeder said. "Every day she asks when she can go to kindergarten."

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