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UNEVEN STARTING LINE

Come to kindergarten class and see for yourself. One 5-year-old has trouble sitting in his seat and clamors for the teacher's attention. "Hey, teacher," the boy intrudes as the adults pass out supplies. "I don't have any."

"You're going to get one," his kindergarten teacher tells him.

Albert - not his real name - sits in a double-size kindergarten class, one with two teachers and two aides, in a double-size room.

"I'm going to see if anyone else needs help," one teacher, who has been hovering over Albert, tells him as she glides toward another student.

His teachers at Piedmont Elementary School say children like Albert start kindergarten every year. Such children pay less attention to the teachers and require more attention from them.

"Hey teacher, hey teacher," Albert says. "Look what you made," replies teacher Nancy VanGilder, deftly dodging a demand by offering praise.

A few minutes later, again: "Hey, teacher."

"What's my name?" an aide replies.

A few weeks go by, and Albert has dropped his "Hey, teacher" habit. But can he adjust to the orderly life of a classroom, graduate from high school, and hold a steady job? More to the point, can he, in 180 school days, get himself ready for first grade?

Standing where Charleston's downtown merges into the East End, Piedmont serves a few upper middle-class families, a few average-income families, and many more families clinging to - some just reaching for - a low rung on the economic ladder. What chance do low-income children have to get a decent education, and enter the mainstream culture, where parents drop off their children for dance lessons, pay for music lessons and drag their children along to museums and shows.

Sara Strick, the other teacher in Albert's room, said she sees too many children come to kindergarten not knowing their colors, numbers and letters, unable to count or write their names, unaccustomed to sitting still and listening. STORY INCOMPLETE


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