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From child to student

In the cafeteria of Jewett Elementary School on Tuesday evening, Jessica and Matthew Robertson sat at one of several long rows of tables with dozens of other families, fiddling with a green registration paper and a handful of personal documents.

“It really hit me today knowing that we were going to come do this,” said Jessica Robertson. “It makes me emotional, it makes me nervous, for her, for myself, because this is such a huge change.”

Lena, their 5-year-old daughter, who was hug-wrestling with her older sister between them, is the second child the couple will have seen off to kindergarten come next fall. But with another new student come new uncertainties, from what their teacher will be like to how she’ll feel about being in the new environment.

“She’s our more outgoing child, so I’m not nervous for that reason,” Jessica Robertson said. “I’m just nervous because she’s our baby, and it’s been five years since we’ve done this. So we have a pretty big gap between the two.”

But that’s exactly why the family was at Jewett six months before Lena’s first day. The Kindergarten Launch event was designed to replace trepidation with information, equipping parents with knowledge to set their children up for long-term success from their first day in kindergarten.

Though the annual event isn’t new, for the past few years the Southern Oregon Early Learning Services Hub, which offers resources and materials to local schools, has been working to consolidate the launches into the same time period — the first week of March. A few school districts in Jackson and Josephine counties held theirs then.

Whenever or however districts organize their events, the central goal is usually similar: to get more families to show up so they can meet staff and other parents and learn the most important ways they can prepare their little ones to become students.

“Our hope is to make it easier on the families,” said Teresa Slater, an Early Learning Hub facilitator who works directly with schools on kindergarten readiness.

A child’s entrance into kindergarten marks an important milestone in a family’s journey. Especially for parents who are enrolling their first child, Slater said, it may be the first time they’ve interacted with a school system since they left it themselves.

“The earlier we can connect with them ... the more prepared the child and family will be to make that transition in the fall,” she said. “This is how we reach the families to let them know what’s happening in the community.”

At Jewett, the program kicked off with a welcome from Principal Maggie Staley, as Vice Principal Tess Siemer translated her message into Spanish. Jewett kindergarten teachers also stood at the front as families finished eating their pizza and filling out registration forms.

Later, as parents made their way to classrooms for an information session, they dropped off their children at one of two other classrooms, where child care was being provided.

Grant funding from the Children’s Reading Foundation helped Jewett provide the dinner, the child care and, perhaps most importantly, the stacks of materials that some parents would be able to take home. Binders with information on social-emotional health, games to practice colors and shapes, and books that teach basic words lined a table in each kindergarten class. Because there weren’t enough for every family, they were encouraged to share, maybe even trade phone numbers to pass materials back and forth when they were finished.

Beyond getting parents connected to their school, Siemer said, the kindergarten launch is a way to spark connections between young families.

“I think there’s that community-building piece of going through the same experience with peers,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to reduce apprehension and anxiety both of parents and kiddos.”

That sense of anxiety may be heightened for families whose children didn’t attend preschool or day care, making the transition more substantial.

That’s the case for more families in Southern Oregon than not. Jackson County had only enough public prekindergarten program spots for 26% of kids ages birth to 5, one 2019 study found.

The Oregon Community Foundation recently awarded grant money to two local nonprofits to mitigate that lack of access. In summer of 2019, it awarded $100,000 to Kid Time, which hopes to double the size of its preschool program when it moves into the Carnegie Library building in Medford. That project is facing a hiccup after the Oregon Legislature adjourned its short session Thursday without allocating $2 million in funding the nonprofit needs.

In fall 2019, the foundation also awarded Kids Unlimited Academy a $75,000 grant to establish a preschool and family resource center, with particular focus on readying Latino families for kindergarten.

For now, there are still far fewer seats to go around, and private preschool isn’t affordable for many families, so the Early Learning Hub offers another option: Kaleidoscope Play and Learn Groups.

They’re free, drop-in weekly events offered on different days in locations in Jackson and Josephine counties. They’re targeted for families of children ages 3 to 5, Slater said, though siblings of other ages are welcome.

The 90-minute sessions include play time, a storytime when parents or guardians read aloud to their children, and a snack and a break.

“We want everyone to be showing up at these,” Slater said. “Theoretically, my hope would be that they could create their own early learning experience by going to multiple groups throughout the week.”

A complete list of the locations and times is available here.

One of the main takeaways that the Play and Learns aim to instill in parents is the importance of reading to their children. Brain development is most rapid and significant from time in utero through the first eight years of life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and reading aloud and talking with young children are two of the most important ways to boost their learning and communications skills.

Kindergarten teachers drive that home to their parent guests at the launch events.

From regional administrators to teachers in the classroom, the focus has also homed in on the social and emotional aspects of preparing kids for the classroom. It’s part of an effort to reduce disruptive behaviors in younger-grade classrooms, the subject of increasing concern for the past few years.

“That’s going to be a heavier focus now because that’s where we see the need,” said Jeanne Grazioli, executive director of teaching and learning in the Medford School District.

Kids will best be able to learn in kindergarten, teachers said, if they have some foundation of regulating their negative emotions, and can handle situations like losing a game and sharing with others.

They also asked parents to help their children learn how to identify and express their physical needs.

“I’ve had kids say, ‘My lungs hurt,’” Sarah Tompkins, a Jewett kindergarten teacher, told her room full of parents Tuesday night. “And then they vomit everywhere.”

The program is also offered in Spanish at most schools, as are resources to prepare children from non-English-speaking homes.

“It’s amazing because they are also encouraging (students) to continue speaking Spanish,” said Rocio Gonzalez, who is hoping to enroll her second child in Jewett’s dual-language immersion kindergarten class. “It’s super comforting.”

Parents should consult their school district’s website or social media to learn when their kindergarten launch will be. Eagle Point School District’s Kindergarten Rodeo, with child care and dinner, will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 4.

Medford School District is holding its Kindergarten Launch from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 1.

Schools ask parents to bring immunization records, proof of age and address to those events.

For those who have missed their school’s Kindergarten Launch or who are seeking more information on how to prepare their child for their first year in school, it’s best to contact school offices directly. Some schools also offer a Kindergarten Jumpstart in the early summer, which brings parents and soon-to-be kindergarteners back into classrooms for one week.

While children get accustomed to the classroom environment, parents also connect over many of the same topics as in the launches, such as preparing their young students and partnering with teachers and principals to maximize their child’s potential.

Slater said that while the early years can be somewhat overwhelming at times, opportunities to connect with schools and other young families are a great way to know parents aren’t isolated as they guide their children through what she called “absolutely the most important time, without question.”

“Those early skills that the kiddos are learning really do launch them into success in their more formalized education,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMatthew Robertson, left, Laci Robertson, Lena Robertson, 5, and Jessica Robertson attend a Kindergarten Launch at Jewett Elementary School Tuesday.