Back to School in a Pandemic: How Oakland Unified is Supporting Kindergarteners

After having missed so much school, a program to ease the transition from pre-K to kindergarten is more important than ever.
Blog Post
Aug. 10, 2021

For the four-year-olds attending Oakland Unified’s summer pre-K program, this is the first time many of them are learning with their teachers and classmates together in the same room.

Oakland Unified closed for in-person instruction in March of 2020 and opened school buildings again over a year later in a hybrid model, with a few hours per day of in-person instruction. The schedule was difficult for most working families and attendance was low.

The district has been investing in its youngest students as part of an initiative to strengthen Oakland’s early childhood systems since 2015, and now, in the next phase of the pandemic, the district is leaning on those systems to make sure schools are ready to support young children when they return in the fall.

“We know that the first couple of years of schooling are always really significant ones for families,” said Hedy Chang, the Executive Director of Attendance Works, a California-based nonprofit that has worked in Oakland. “It’s your first experience going into formal schooling, partnering with educators to meet the needs of your kids. If that’s a positive experience you enter school with hope. If it’s a negative experience, where you feel like no one cares about you and you feel more disconnected, then you’re going to have to overcome that.”

In normal years, children start school in Oakland Unified having had a variety of learning experiences. Some come to kindergarten directly from district pre-K programs or from Head Start. Others have spent time in family child care settings or spent their days with grandma or other family members. This year, data show that large numbers of young children in Oakland and across the state have either missed kindergarten or pre-K entirely or had online learning experiences that made it difficult for them to build the skills they need to succeed.

Maria Sujo is Oakland Unified’s Kindergarten Readiness Manager. She is leading the effort to make sure the district is ready for these children when school starts this month. Sujo said teachers in Oakland understand that young children have missed critical learning experiences because of the pandemic and that school is going to have to look different when they return in the fall. Preschool on Zoom, she said “is not the same as attending preschool at school and riding a tricycle, and sharing toys, and negotiating and practicing letters.”

This fall, Sujo said, teachers will need time to meet children where they are, especially for the youngest students who have missed these critical years of school. “We’re going to have to go back to basics and support children in socializing and connecting and separating from their families, all of those foundational abilities that help children attend to learning.”

Sujo created the Kindergarten Transition Teacher Leader Program that pairs kindergarten teachers with pre-K teachers who work together to share information and build support structures that make sure children have successful early school experiences. Teachers lead activities, mostly virtual this past year, designed to familiarize children with kindergarten and help families learn about kindergarten readiness and how to support their children at home.

Kindergarten Transition Teacher Leaders host online opportunities for pre-kindergarteners to learn more about the elementary school they will go to, see what the school landscape looks like, take a virtual tour, meet the teachers, and ask questions to help support the transition to elementary school after not being in person for so long. Programs are held in multiple languages with translation when needed. Many teachers are multilingual and have backgrounds that reflect Oakland’s diverse communities, something Sujo said is important to making families feel comfortable and connected to their new elementary school community.

Pre-K teachers also complete a digital kindergarten transition form for each child who will enter kindergarten or transitional kindergarten. The form includes questions about what is unique about each child and what the child’s educational experience was like this past year, such as how the family engaged in online learning. This school year Sujo also invited Head Start to use the district’s transition forms for their rising kindergarten students.

“We’ve been doing this for five years,” Sujo said. “But I think this is the most crucial year that we’ve been engaging in this.”

The questionnaire is meant to help teachers so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel and can learn from strategies successful preschool teachers have used.

“We’re able to share those nuggets of information,” Sujo said. “What's special about that child? What helps them feel better when they miss their mommy?” For one child, that was the “Wakanda Forever” sign from the Black Panther movie. “It was the teacher’s way of saying ‘I see you, I’m here with you,’” Sujo said. “By sharing that with the kindergarten teacher it was like sharing a little secret that only that kid knew.”

Oakland Unified also has been working on communications strategies for families that don’t just “make deposits of information,” according to Sujo, but make sure families can have their questions answered and feel supported in the enrollment process. The district has also expanded it’s home visiting program, doing virtual home visits via Zoom or Facetime and in person when possible. They are also using a new two-way text communication that offers translation into at least six languages.

The district’s early childhood programs also have long-term partnerships with groups like the Oakland Public Library and Lotus Bloom Family Resource Center that run playgroups for children under five and offer family support services. They also have developed in-depth teacher training programs that are now led by teacher leaders, where teachers share best practices with other early childhood practitioners throughout the community.

Oakland has been focusing on strengthening transitions into kindergarten for some time, but other districts may not be as equipped to support young children and families through the challenges of the upcoming school year. New America and EducationalCounsel’s recent toolkit can help state and local leaders strengthen transitions between their early childhood and K-12 systems in response to COVID-19.

It’s inevitable,” Sujo said, that Oakland’s back to school season is “going to have to look different this year.” Hopefully these partnerships will help students, teachers and families ease some of the bumps in the road.

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