by Amy Whipple
Ready Freddy is an initiative of the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development, designed to increase on-time kindergarten enrollment and student attendance, enhance the transition to kindergarten, and help parents to become more engaged with school. The overall goal is to improve family and community involvement in each child’s first year of school. In 2013, Ready Freddy received a Henry L. Hillman Foundation grant that allowed it to create a sustainable infrastructure to support the program’s continuation and expansion in Pittsburgh and, potentially, throughout the country.
- Ready Freddy leverages familiar neighborhood faces, parents, and school staff on teams that design activities grounded in best practices for kindergarten success. It also leverages Freddy, the friendly frog mascot, who serves as a kindergarten icon, adding an upbeat and fun component to the education setting.
- Ready Freddy is an innovative education effort that focuses on the long-term importance of kindergarten, daily attendance, and the role of family and community in a child’s academic success.
- The initiative increases on-time kindergarten enrollment, first-day-of-school attendance, and overall family and community involvement in children’s first year of school (and beyond).
- Ready Freddy transforms how at-risk families view and interact with their local elementary school.
The timing of the funding capitalized on the momentum of the Pittsburgh Public Schools on school attendance, as well as additional local and national attention evidenced by the United Way of Allegheny County’s “Be There” campaign and a national campaign led by Hedy Chang of Attendance Works.
Do you remember your first day of kindergarten?
The children who began kindergarten on August 28, 2009 at Pittsburgh Weil PreK-5 in the Hill District certainly will. As they made their way to the front door, friends, family, and neighbors wore sunshine yellow t-shirts and lined the sidewalks, greeting the children and encouraging them. People who drove by honked in support. There were cameras snapping, lots of balloons, and lots of smiles, hugs, and pats on backs. Could this truly be the first day of school?
Ken Smythe-Leistico, an organizer of the event and (at the time) its larger program, Ready Freddy, remembers, “The kid who was a little nervous that day, the parent who was scared to death that day, had people saying, ‘Have a great day!’ It left a positive and lasting impression of what the first day of school should be. In essence, we ensured that families experienced the ‘kind’ in kindergarten.”
From children to parents to school staff and administrators, everyone felt welcomed, important, appreciated, and ready to start the year.
Two years prior to Ready Freddy’s initial intervention at Pittsburgh’s Northview PreK-8, only 25% of kindergartners were registered as of the first day of school. The year before the Ready Freddy program intervention, only 16% were enrolled on time.
Some children would arrive after Labor Day. More would arrive in clumps after that. “It was a six-month process of kids trickling in,” says Smythe-Leistico. “What we kept hearing from parents was ‘It’s just kindergarten.’ The schools saw disconnected parents and as a result they didn’t feel compelled to be motivated either.”
In low-income areas, one in four kids are chronically absent in kindergarten. This is a serious matter, as research has shown strong correlations between kindergarten and first-grade attendance and third-grade reading scores. But statistics are one thing and the law is another. Although children enrolled in kindergarten are now required to attend every day, the state of Pennsylvania still doesn’t require school enrollment until children are eight years old—or third grade in most cases.
So what was really going on underneath “it’s just kindergarten”?
Ready Freddy’s current director, Aisha White, says, “If parents are unsure about sending their kindergartner to a school, they’re hesitant to enroll them. Usually, parents get information about schools in general and kindergarten in particular through word of mouth. It’s a limited picture and typically a negative one. They haven’t been in the school building; they don’t know the staff in many cases. They’re basing their assumptions on gossip.” They’re also working from memories about their own school experiences, which have often been negative.
Smythe-Leistico adds, “Some parents were saying that when mail came with the school district logo on the envelope, they didn’t even open it because they had so little regard for it.”
As a result, kids weren’t registering and enrolling on time, making it that much more likely that they wouldn’t be there on the first day.
“One day turns into six days” and so on, says Smythe-Leistico. “Without anyone noticing, the kids can fall behind.”
The transition to kindergarten is an important factor for kids and parents alike. And for children who did not attend a pre-K program, the first day of kindergarten is their very first day ever in a formal education setting.
“Think about how nervous adults are on the first day of a new job,” says Smythe-Leistico, pointing out that kids are equally if not more vulnerable when encountering new experiences. On the other hand, he says, with the addition of “family-friendly, warm, engaging encounters, they feel better about the first day of school. You’re not just orienting kids to a building or a place, but starting a relationship.”
Hitting the Streets
Early in the program, Smythe-Leistico and his team, with the help of neighborhood parents, went door-to-door wearing “summer-camp-like” yellow t-shirts with Freddy the frog’s smiling face on the front. The face-to-face encounters allowed the Ready Freddy team to put concrete information into parents’ hands.
“Parents want what’s best for their children. They want opportunities for their children,” Smythe-Leistico stressed. And personally presenting the opportunities offered by kindergarten made a difference in their thinking.
As efforts have grown, so have the street teams. In addition to using housing records to find kindergarten-ready children, every Ready Freddy “kindergarten team” mobilizes the organization’s staff members alongside a children’s librarian from the Carnegie Library, parents, and multiple school staff (social workers, guidance counselors, kindergarten and pre-K teachers, and family service specialists). Many teams also have representatives from faith-based institutions and community education organizations like A+ Schools and Reading is Fundamental. These Ready Freddy teams also plan enrollment and transition activities for both children and parents.
“Parents appreciate the warmth they experience when they actually get to know school staff,” White says. “More often than not, they are quite impressed by how sincere and genuine school principals and teachers are and how invested they are in each child’s success.”
After a year of intervention activities at Northview, Smythe-Leistico and his teammates waited eagerly for enrollment statistics for the 2008-2009 school year. The result couldn’t have been better: 100% of eligible children had enrolled.
Ready Freddy replicated this achievement three more times in schools with similar profiles. They’re now at ten Pittsburgh-area schools in full capacity and outposts have sprouted full programs in four states and partial programs in twenty.
With the support of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Ready Freddy was able to establish a sustainable foundation for its work. “It has to be embedded,” says Smythe-Leistico. Previously, “it was so contingent on us doing so much work. With their encouragement, we had hard conversations with the district and the superintendent to tell them they had added responsibility toward the project as well.”
Ultimately, Ready Freddy is about creating an attitude about education and learning that can span the city and county, but that can’t happen without school administrators being willing to hold themselves and their schools accountable.”
“It’s a collective process,” Smythe-Leistico says. “Because kindergarten wasn’t being taken seriously, it took the work of a group of people to spread the word about how important kindergarten is.”