Bridging the Gap
During the dog days of summer, when most kids are thinking about anything but school, dozens of soon-to-be Providence kindergartners are getting a jump start on the academic year - part of a program designed to help those who have not had the benefits of pre-school. Jim Hummel takes us inside a program that has shown impressive results.
The official start of kindergarten is still three weeks away but on a steamy day in early August the kids inside this Providence elementary school are getting a jump start to the school year.
``Let's see if he can find the letter `B' and circle it.''
Pat Conti, a first-grade teacher during the year, is taking up temporary residence in a kindergarten room on the first floor of the Young/Woods Elementary School in South Providence.
She and her class are there for a summer program called Kids Bridge.
``There's Thursday and there's Friday and then there's Saturday. Days of the week....''
The program is run by Inspiring Minds, a non-profit education support organization for the Providence School Department. Inspiring Minds trains hundreds of volunteer tutors who help throughout the academic year.
The summer classes - a joint program between Inspiring Minds and the School Department - began five years ago with one school. It now enrolls 180 children spread across five elementary schools in the city. The program runs in the morning for four weeks and focuses on children kids who have not had the benefit of pre-school.
Adelman: ``The purpose of it is to catch them up and get them onto track of where they're supposed to be by the time they go to kindergarten. That's the whole goal.''
For the past two decades Terri Adelman has been the executive director of Inspiring Minds, which used to be Volunteers in Providence Schools. Adelman was chairman of the Barrington School Committee for more than a decade.
Adelman: ``My kids had two years of preschool - they knew how to sit, they knew how to play, they knew how to work with other kids, they knew all of that.Our kids don't. They knew their letters, they knew how to write, they knew all of that. That's what we try to do with the kids in kindergarten. We want to give them those skills and because little ones learn so quickly we're able to do that.''
Adelman says the program costs $500 per child, with about 80 percent of the funding coming from the School Department and Inspiring Minds picking up the remainder.
This year they also began a pilot program in the afternoon at Messer Elementary with four partners:
The Providence Children's Museum
The Boys and Girls Club of Providence
The Providence YMCA
And Providence Community Libraries
Each of which donated time and resources, either coming to Messer or taking the kids on weekly field trips.
And while Kids Bridge is free for the families, there is no transportation, leaving parents responsible for getting their children to the program. With four of the five schools ending by late morning, many families have to juggle daycare. Even still, the program had a 90 percent attendance rate, despite an extended heat wave in July.
Most of the children arrive at their assigned schools just after 8 am. They ease into the day with breakfast before settling in about 8:30.
``Let me see you jump, let me see you wiggle.''
While academics are important, the program provides socialization opportunities that some of these kids have never had. Sitting still, getting along with others, listening to what the teacher says. And there are things we take for granted, like getting used to using scissors.
Alyssa Shelley, who will be a first-year teacher in the Providence School system in the fall, is getting a jump start on her own career.
She walks the fine line between inspiring the kids and overseeing what at times can be controlled chaos.
Regina Richards is in her third year as a kindergarten teacher at Young/Woods Elementary. She says the results of the summer program speak for themselves, as all of the kids are tested before and after the four weeks of Kids Bridge. The stats show a marked improvement across the board. But it's intangibles, Richards says, that are equally important.
Richards: ``Being empathetic to one another, learning to say `please and thank you' to one another, being polite to one another, some children don't know that and we're teaching that in the program as well.''
Adelman: ``Children do not want to go slowly, they want to learn and the faster they can do it, the happier they are, because the faster they get to where their mom and dad are and where their older siblings are.''
Hummel: ``As you walk into the classes, what goes through your mind as you watch those kids?''
Adelman: ``Well it's just so exciting to see them actually being able to do what the teachers ask them to do. And what's exciting is you see it on their face. Kids know when they're behind. They innately know it, they know they should be doing something and they can't. And I remember one time I was sitting there and I was working with this little girl - 'cause I got in occasionally because it's so cool - and I was working with this little girl and she looked at me 'cause she was having troubles just writing, printing a letter and she said `You know I just want to be smart.' And my just kind of broke and I'm sitting there, going, she's going into kindergarten and she's barely able to do her letters and all she wants to do is to be smart.''
Another key to the program's success is the number of volunteers to help corral and focus children who have differing abilities and attention spans.
Adelman: ``We're very flexible, but something we're not flexible in is when we bring an adult in they cannot work with more than 3 or 4 people; preferably one, two, but not more than 3 or 4, because after that the impact gets diluted.''
Darnell Tutt says his daughter couldn't wait to go to school every day, even though it was summertime.
Hummel: ``When she comes home at night what does she tell you?''
Tutt: ``Everything, everything that happens, anything she learns - she sings the songs, she'll do the motions, she'll tell me what she did, what friends we made, what the friend's name is. She very excited, she loves it.''
At the end of the four weeks, Inspiring Minds holds a graduation. For the first time this summer all five schools came together at the Providence Career and Technical Academy. Hundreds of parents, friends and family members turned out for the ceremony.
Hummel: ``So you think the 5-year-old very much gets it, as he or she walks in and looks around and sees this place full.''
Adelman: ``Full, they've done something special. If you're a 5-year-old and you walk into a room and you see 500 people sitting there and you're the one that's being showcased, you have your little hat on, you've done something special, that sends a very large message to the little kids and their parents came.''
And there's a message, she says, for the parents of this high school class of 2026.
Adelman: ``Education is very, very important. You have done a wonderful job in getting your children started with this education and now you need to do 12 more years of this.''
Hummel: ``What about the cynic who would say `C'mon graduation at this age?' What do you see that that does for them?''
Richards: ``I think it boosts their self-esteem and their proud. We saw children after getting their diploma going up and showing their family. They're proud of that, I think that's really important.''
Adelman is trying to get the Providence School Department to fund an expanded program next summer.
Adelman: ``And lo and behold consistently every year the kids walk into school - 30 percent, they have 30 percent more skills than the kids who didn't have this. This is such an inexpensive and such a successful way to fill a gap that exists, that nobody else is filling.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel, for the Rhode Island Spotlight.