Mays Elementary Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Despite an increasing number of preschool spots available in Chicago, there are still hundreds or thousands of children who don’t attend. Some families can’t find a program close enough in their neighborhood. Others don’t know preschools are available, or prefer to keep their little ones at home.

Once kindergarten starts, the end result is often crying and confused children who aren’t ready for school. Teachers struggle to help these students masters basic skills like holding pencils and walking in a line.

To smooth the transition, 14 schools in Chicago offer Step Up To Kindergarten, a condensed summer preschool program that is specifically for students who have registered for kindergarten without having attended a CPS preschool. Children who have attended preschool elsewhere are eligible.

Like most CPS summer programs, Step Up to Kindergarten is designed to fill in for where students are lacking. An analysis by Catalyst Chicago found that 43 percent of seats in summer programs are remedial, compared to only 12.3 percent in enrichment programs. Another 44.4 percent of seats are in programs that have both remedial and enrichment components.

CPS chooses schools through a request for proposals. The program has been around for 7 years, and the program has about the same amount of students this year as last.

For four weeks each summer, 345 students get a head start on the school year. They’re in classes with the same teachers they will have when August rolls around. (CPS has moved the start of the school year to the final week in August instead of after Labor Day in September.)

State preschool and Head Start programs reached just 43 percent of 4-year-olds statewide in 2012, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Praise from teachers

Teachers contacted by Catalyst praised the program, saying it gives them and their students a valuable leg up and reduces the time they have to spend on classroom management in the fall. 

Another plus is the materials: CPS provides teachers with lesson plans, materials and books for the entire 4-week program.

Children spend their time rotating among various activities—in reading and math centers doing small group work, in unstructured “free choice” time, playing outdoors, and learning basic writing skills. Yet, because classes only run for four weeks, Step Up to Kindergarten students only learn a fraction of what they would in nine months of preschool classes.

On a recent day during math time at Sawyer Elementary on the Southwest Side, students in Yuliana Zavala’s Step Up to Kindergarten class are learning about patterns. Sawyer has no preschool program, Zavala explains, and many parents in the neighborhood aren’t aware of programs that do exist elsewhere—so many children in the community need the boost they get from the program.

Zavala pulls out a card with colored circles. “What should I put there?” she asks. After looking at the card, the children show they’ve deciphered the pattern by calling out what color of bear she should put down next.

At another station, students trace numbers from a stencil onto paper. Some trace numbers on top of other numbers, struggling to hold stencils and pencils in place.

At yet another center, students roll a die, count the number of dots, and graph how many times each number appears. Zavala shows students how to roll the die so it lands on the table instead of the floor, and guides students through counting and tallying each roll.

One girl has rolled two ones and two sixes. “Which one has more?” Zavala prompts. “Both of them,” the girl answered correctly.  Another boy rolls a six. “How many do you have?” Zavala asks. “Five,” he says. “Show me that five,” she says, and the boy counts – turning sheepish when he gets to five and then six.

Social-emotional focus

Perhaps more important than academic skills like learning how to count, according to teachers and principals, are the basic social skills students learn in Step Up to Kindergarten – skills that children who haven’t set foot in classrooms before otherwise wouldn’t have any way to learn.

In Zavala’s room, a poster shows the rules: Always listen. Always raise your hand. Always be nice to each other. Always be friends. Always do your homework.

Plus, Zavala explains, having these 16 students helps her to get a head start just as much as it helps the children. When August rolls around, she’ll have 15 to 20 additional students, some of whom have had preschool and some who haven’t. But those who were with her during the summer will be ahead of the game, used to her routines, and can show their classmates what to do.

Also, Zavala says, the program helps students develop fine motor skills they will need to do school work.

“One of my students has never grabbed a pencil before,” she explains. “He is getting experience (now) so, during the school year, it can be easier.”

She routinely has students practice writing and reading their names, and moves their name tags around each day so they learn to distinguish their name tags from their classmates’ tags.

Down the hall, in Marlene Avila’s class, some students are working on making pictures out of shaped blocks. Some boys dump a container of blocks on the carpet and others crawl around, throwing them. One girl helps to get a boy back on track after he threw a blue parallelogram at her—she guides him to match blocks to the outline of his picture.

Meanwhile, Avila works with a small group of students on number recognition, showing them cards with numerals and having them say which number it is.

Bringing students into a larger group, she asks, “What letter did we study today?” and has the class call out words that begin with the letter ‘G.’ They’re given worksheets with the letter on it, and practice writing the letter and drawing pictures of words that start with it.

“Holding a pencil, writing their name, that’s going to be big,” Avila explains. “Letters, colors, all the basics, and learning to follow rules.”

“These 20 students are going to help shape the classroom,” she adds. “They’re going to help me guide the rest. I’m going to see the difference when the school year starts.”

Twain Elementary Principal Sandra James says the program helps students with “some of the basic things the kids would’ve learned in pre-K: following rules, taking turns. It helps them to learn that process prior to being in a classroom of 30 kids.”

Getting ready for all-day kindergarten

During reading time at Twain, teacher Ann McCartin shows a group of students the book “Not a Box,” about an imaginative rabbit who turns a box into many other things.

She shows them skills that will help them as they learn to read. First, she guides them through each of the elements of the book. “Where is the author’s name?” she asks, helping them learn to point it out. “Here’s the dedication: To children everywhere sitting in boxes.”

Next, on one page, McCartin helps the students guess why the rabbit is squirting water at a box; on another page, what the rabbit will make next.

When it’s time to rotate activities, McCartin leads the children in a familiar kindergarten ritual that helps with classroom management: a song to transition from one task to the next. “Stand up, stand up, stand behind your chair,” she and the children sing. “Stand up, stand up, stand up and push in your chair.”

In another classroom, teacher Bridget Stack coaches a girl on how to draw a rainbow, as part of making the letter A. While the girl is just now working on forming single letters in her name, others have written their names out six or seven times.

At Andrew Jackson Language Academy, Principal Mathew Ditto says some of the students in Step Up to Kindergarten have been to preschool outside CPS, but still might not be ready for the demands of a full-day kindergarten program where students must move from classroom to classroom for the school’s many non-core “specials” classes like foreign language, art, music, gym, library and technology.

 “It’s a rigorous program. There’s no nap time or snack time,” Ditto says. Summer school has “a structured curriculum that helps them acculturate.”

Outside the school, before class begins, teacher Angela Gordon waves her arms and beeps like an air traffic controller in an effort to straighten the line.

Once the students get to Gordon’s room, they wait patiently in line to sign in on an attendance clipboard.

As each child hands off the sign-in pencil to the next child in line, Gordon reminds them softly to greet each other. “Henry, did you say Good Morning to the person behind you?” she prompts.


Schools offering Step Up to Kindergarten:






Andrew Jackson









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