Fewer Louisiana kids enrolled in pre-K, kindergarten. Will they be ready for first grade?

Leigh Guidry
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
First grade teacher Jamie Derouen teaching class as Woodvale Elementary host Leadership Day showcasing students as they learn to become safe, respectful, and responsible leaders.  Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.

Louisiana school enrollment is down more than 2%, much of that from pre-K and kindergarten students "redshirting" during the pandemic, and some worry this will put kids even further behind come fall.

It's an issue Louisiana early childhood teachers face every year, even without a pandemic, as 60% of kids show up to kindergarten "not ready," according to state learning standards. However, this delay in starting school could magnify the problem, especially if they've spent this extra time away from a structured learning environment.

"If children don't get high-quality experiences there could be learning gaps and delays next year," said Emmy Thibodeaux, coordinator of the Lafayette Early Childhood Network. "I don't see how any kid could succeed without that."

Emmy Thibodeaux is coordinator of the Lafayette Early Childhood Network.

That's because 90% of brain development occurs from birth to age 5, research says, and brain formation depends on high-quality instruction and experiences, Thibodeaux explained.

"Regardless of when (kindergarten, pre-K or first grade), those high-quality experiences are what matter," she said. "It sets the foundation."

Students in Louisiana are not required by law to be in school until age 7. Although the majority of children begin school by kindergarten, it is not mandatory.

The importance of a strong academic foundation

Thibodeaux compares building that academic and social foundation to building a house in Louisiana. It needs a good, solid foundation or there will be big problems down the road.

"It's a whole lot more expensive to fix in the long run," Thibodeaux said. "The same is true for pre-K. That foundation impacts teen pregnancy, graduation rates and the workforce. The impacts are lifelong."

Gina Menard has taught kindergarten or first grade for eight years now, and she can tell when a student has been in pre-K before they get to her, both academically and socially.

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Gina Menard, 34, teaches kindergarten at Church Point Elementary.

"At first when they come in to pre-K or to kindergarten without pre-K, it's like we're training them in how to be in school," said Menard, who teaches kindergarten at Church Point Elementary this year.

"The ones who have (been in school before) come in a little more ready for the idea of it all. There's still work to be done, but they're kind of used to the environment."

Academically, students who have been through pre-K have been introduced to letters, numbers and colors, so they're more prepared for sight words, adding and subtracting when they get to kindergarten.

"In kindergarten, we do a lot more than learn the alphabet," Menard said. "When they've had an academic foundation in pre-K and we expand on the basics, it's less overwhelming. When it's more overwhelming they get frustrated and it's harder for them to be able to work."

Offering kids additional learning opportunities

However, Thibodeaux points out that "pre-K is not a magic year." It takes more than one year to build a foundation, and Louisiana teachers prepare for this every year.

"As kindergarten teachers, we're prepared for kids with or without pre-K. We're the starting point," Menard said.

One difference this year could be in summer school, as the state Department of Education is encouraging school districts to use stimulus dollars to offer more robust learning opportunities and enrichment between the spring and fall semesters.

"So we can possibly get those kids back earlier — the earlier the better," said Jenna Chiasson, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Louisiana Department of Education.

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The aim with these programs is to support and bridge any gaps in learning, she said.

"The more we see those bridge programs this summer, the better off we'll be," Chiasson said.

Jenna Chiasson, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Louisiana Department of Education

But it's not just about the summer or next fall. Schools can and are addressing these gaps now with before- and after-school tutoring and resources like the state's Accelerate program.

Accelerate is pre-K-through-12th-grade tutoring for English and math that uses an acceleration model rather than remediation. Remediation looks back at what students have missed, but acceleration models look forward to see what kids need to be successful and continue moving forward, Chiasson explained. It's both a mindset and an approach, she said.

Lafayette Parish Superintendent Irma Trosclair said the district is planning ahead while still focusing on the current semester.

"We are reminding our people that we are planning for next year, but we can't lose these days either," Trosclair said. "We have to maximize instruction time. Right now is critical. We have to use our time wisely."

Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.