Magazine

College starts at kindergarten: School-readiness program brings families to Foothill College


Megan V. Winslow/town Crier
Stretch to Kindergarten campers use markers to color air-dry clay in July.

During the limbo of school’s-out summer, students must balance playtime with pressure to achieve, and working parents calculate time, expense and transportation. Multiple local programs address the summer achievement gap that occurs when some families have access to camp resources that others do not. A program at Foothill College uses the summer to target a more sweeping achievement gap with its "summer preschool intensive."

Stretch to Kindergarten (STK) completed a 10th year of serving low-income children and families last summer. The program is a cornerstone of Foothill College’s Family Engagement Institute (FEI). The institute focuses on aspects of college-readiness that start at birth, and considers entire families in its approach by partnering "with school districts and community-based organizations to make sure there’s access and pathways to college," according to Betsy Nikolchev, FEI executive director.

"We want to support families to have the best tools and resources to navigate systems of education, so that they in turn can support their children to be successful," she said.

FEI targets what Nikolchev calls "high-priority families," those whose students qualify for free or reduced lunch, are first-generation immigrants or are the first generation to attend college and haven’t had access to quality pre-kindergarten programs. These families are the most vulnerable to what’s known as the achievement gap - the significant disparity in educational achievement between students from high- and low-income families.

By making college seem like a possibility, FEI aims to help high-priority families bridge that gap. STK is a first step that students from such families can take, Nikolchev said.

Prioritizing diversity

The program runs six weeks during the summer from 8 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. weekdays, mirroring the standard kindergarten schedule. Students learn to sit in a circle, raise their hands, stand in line and listen to their friends, skills they will need to succeed in a kindergarten class.

"We get them ready socially and emotionally," said Angie Cortez, an instructional assistant at STK. "We really try to prepare them for what kindergarten is going to look and feel like."

Instructional assistants are like assistant teachers, but they also help regular teachers adapt to STK. Because the teachers are coming from schools on a standard school-year calendar, and often teach higher grade levels than preschool, instructional assistants help them learn how to teach preschool-age children more effectively on the condensed schedule.

There are approximately 10 leaders in each class, Cortez said, who are collectively known as "teachers" to the students: teachers, high school student interns, parent volunteers and instructional assistants. The teachers have various cultural backgrounds, making each classroom a melting pot.

The program makes focusing on the diverse ethnic makeup of the classrooms a priority, Nikolchev noted.

"We want students to see their own identity reflected in the classroom, not just as a passing, tourist experience, but really embedded in the classroom," she said. "We want them to appreciate the diversity in the community they live in."

Carlos Pacheco, who has been with FEI and STK for seven years as first a high school intern, then a full-time intern and now a full-time employee, said STK was, as a program, particularly culturally responsive.

"STK really works hard to understand where people are coming from and to have that reflected in the classroom," he said.

The goal materializes in several practices integrated into each day in the classroom, according to Nikolchev. Students begin the day with a "message of the day," read in as many languages as possible. Important words in books the teacher reads aloud are repeated in Spanish. Teachers make statements in multiple languages. 

Engaging parents

Another priority for the program is parent engagement, what Nikolchev calls the "multigenerational" model. Parents of students enrolled in STK also enroll in a Foothill College noncredit parenting class that mainly serves to introduce them to the idea of college. The program is a crucial part of the STK experience, Nikolchev added, and thus FEI wanted to make it as easy as possible to enroll in it.

"Our college noncredit program is a great bridge to college in the sense that it takes down barriers of whether you graduated from high school, or immigration status," she said.

Parents are involved in the program in other ways as well. They are encouraged to come and help out in the classroom by doing anything they can, from supporting teachers during activities to reading stories to the students.

Even if parents are not able to commit to serving in the classroom for longer periods of time, they are still encouraged to attend parent meetings, where they are updated on what is going on in the classroom.

"It’s very important for us that our teachers establish a true and authentic relationship with families," Nikolchev said.

For more information on Stretch to Kindergarten, visit foothill.edu/fei/stk.

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