Kindergarten registration is coming up for many school districts, charter schools and private schools, with Arizona’s education scene offering many choices for young learners.
The first step, educators and education experts say, is for parents to decide if their child is ready for the growing academic stage set in kindergarten.
Lisa Hebting, who has taught kindergarten in the Mesa Unified School District for 17 years, says parents should give thought to academic, social and emotional skills.
“I think it’s important to look at children as a whole package,” said Hebting, who teaches at Red Mountain Ranch Elementary School. “They need to be able to interact socially with large groups because our classes are good sized. They need to be able to have the stability for a full day and lots of structure. Our curriculum that’s come down the pipe the last 10 years has been greatly increased. Kindergarten is the new first grade. There are lots of curricular expectations and state standards.”
Though there has been discussion about cutting funding for full-day kindergarten in school districts to help offset the state budget deficit, no decision has been made. Districts will register students and then inform parents as soon as they know what will happen in the fall, said Mesa Unified spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss.
Arizona schools — public and private — offer different styles of teaching: Montessori, traditional and back-to-basics, arts and dual-language.
“There are more options and choices for parents than ever. It’s not just, 'We go to the closest primary school,’” said Beth Blue Swadener, professor of early childhood education at Arizona State University.
“Shop around. Do your homework,” Swadener said. “If (parents) can get into the classroom, even for a short observation, and have a conversation with the teacher and see their comfort level with it, that is always best.”
During that visit to the classroom, parents may be “a little surprised by what they see — a little less art, a little more reading, writing, reading centers, computer centers, even more math than they may associate with first-grade,” she said.
The increased academic expectations of students in older grades has trickled down to more academic structure in kindergarten, Swadener said.
Rancho Solano, a private school for students in preschool through eighth-grade in Gilbert, sets a high standard for kindergarten — and all other grades — expecting all students to work a minimum of one year ahead of grade level, said Geoff Brown, headmaster for pre-kindergarten through eighth grades at the four Rancho Solano campuses in the Valley.
During a recent class, kindergarten students were tested by listening to a word spoken by the teacher and then choosing the correct spelling from a list of three words.
The parents are “looking for the academic curriculum, the smaller class sizes and the environment,” when choosing Rancho Solano, said Vice Principal Kim Gault.
The Gilbert campus has three classes of 20 students each in kindergarten this year. Its campus, set off Gilbert Road, includes a new classroom building, a fenced pool for physical education classes and a summer program, separate play areas for preschool and older students, soccer fields and several basketball courts.
All kindergarten students take Spanish, art and physical education several times a week, Brown said. Students can study Mandarin Chinese during an after-school program.
Tuition runs about $10,000 a year.
Public charter schools also adopt different types of teaching methods. Bright Beginnings, a charter school for kindergarten through sixth-grade students in Chandler, also sets high expectations for academics.
Students this week worked at different tables on spelling, reading and space-science studies, learning the phases of the moon. One boy was honored for correctly spelling 300 sight words.
“The first few weeks of school, they’re already taking a book home” to read, said Jeanne Loop, a kindergarten teacher. “Many get to chapter books at some point in the year.”
Parents at Bright Beginnings are expected to volunteer at least 50 hours during the academic year. It’s not uncommon to find a teacher, a teacher’s assistant and a parent assisting students in a classroom.
“When we tour parents, we tell them we are very academic,” said Karen Edris, who leads the school. “When they come to kindergarten, we don’t teach letters, shapes, colors. We expect them to know that.”
It’s through those tours at Bright Beginnings, and other schools, that parents may find the best place for their child.
“We recognize schools are not one-size-fits all,” Edris said.