Rethinking School Readiness

An entire community comes together to discuss how to make schools work for children

By Debra R. Sullivan

Illustrator: Tony Auth

Illustration: Tony Auth © 2006 The Philadelphia Inquirer / Universal Press Syndicate

It takes a village to raise a child, but what does it take to create a village that prepares all children to enter our school systems? Members of organizations in King County, Wash., decided several years ago that we needed a communitywide conversation on how to address the many social/emotional, linguistic, and cultural needs of children.

So, in 2002, with a grant from the Foundation for Early Learning, more than 30 organizations serving children, youth, families, educators, and care providers came together to discuss the relationship between early childhood experiences and the academic achievement gap.

We wanted to make sure that we provide all of our children with exposure to quality care and learning environments that maximize and take advantage of the window of learning opportunity in those critical early years. And we wanted to start building community consensus around what we all could do to ensure that children are ready for school and schools are ready for the children who will be attending.

Diverse organizations such as the Puget Sound Educational Service District, Public Health, City of Seattle ECEAP, Child Care Resources, Comprehensive Health Education Foundation, Seattle Community Colleges, and Talaris Research Institute came together in this collaboration. After months of researching and planning we decided to have a series of community conversations. The idea was to get parents, early childhood educators, elementary teachers, and others in the same room at the same time with a well-trained facilitator to direct the conversation.

As the head of the Praxis Institute for Early Childhood Education, a small college in Seattle that specializes in preparing people for early childhood and elementary education, I know a number of graduates, teachers, pro-viders, colleagues, and collaborators in both fields. If we were going to model what it looked like to have a community conversation, I had to begin by facilitating a conversation in my own community. I invited elementary teachers I knew from the six schools around the college, teachers and providers I knew from the early childhood programs in the neighborhood, and many of the parents I saw regularly. Thirty people came. Many of them had never met each other and had certainly never discussed school readiness. They came because I invited them.

The format for the pilot conversation was simple: We divided people into four groups that contained a combination of parents, early childhood educators, and elementary teachers and asked them to answer two questions:

  • What do children need to be ready for school?
  • What do schools need to be ready for the children they serve?

Participants moved into the groups hesitantly at first. They were unsure about what the “right” answers to questions might be and unsure how they would arrive at the answers together. In all four groups I encouraged participants to write down everyone’s comments and not try to rate them or judge them. In a short time, participants began to get into the conversation. Parents said they realized how much they wanted to learn more about their role as “first teachers.” For many of the kindergarten teachers, this was the first time they had had a conversation with someone in the early childhood field. For a number of the early childhood teachers, it was the first time they felt like a part of an educational “team.” One early childhood educator said she always felt as if parents discounted what she did and that, for the first time, she felt like she was included in the kinds of conversations parents have with kindergarten teachers.

We had note takers in each group who wrote down what everyone said without trying to summarize or combine comments. It may have been more efficient to boil all the comments down to one or two phrases, but everyone appreciated seeing their individual comments being taken seriously. This was particularly true for some of the parents and early childhood teachers who felt that the kindergarten teachers were often taken more seriously than they were. They were pleased to hear some of their perspectives valued and validated by kindergarten teachers. For example, one parent said she felt it was important for children to be socially interactive, and the kindergarten teacher in her group replied that social skills are important because interactions with other children are a big part of school readiness. In another conversation, a parent, early childhood educator, and kindergarten teacher all agreed that children need to know that they can trust the teachers and the school and have good relationships with adults other than parents.

Including everyone’s comments in the data collection meant more work for those who were sifting through it, but word got out that attending the pilot conversation was worth it because, as one participant stated, “What you say matters.” Many parents in the groups commented that it was the first time they had really felt like their child’s “first teacher.” No one had ever asked them what they thought about their child’s school readiness. One parent said she felt empowered seeing her words up on the flipchart right next to everyone else’s.

After collecting all of their comments, we showed them how their comments were similar to the early childhood and brain research, other school readiness efforts across the nation, and the research around cultural relevancy and racial/cultural identity development. For example, research shows that teachers who understand the impact of racism, classism, sexism, etc. on our lives are better able to contend with the race, culture, class, and linguistic diversity they must face in today’s classrooms.

Participants’ responses to the question of what children need in order to be ready for school included the following comments:

  • Children need self-control and emotional self-regulation.
  • Children need to know how to sit, listen, and focus.
  • It’s important for kids to be bilingual — they do better in school when they speak two languages.
  • Children need to know how to get along with others and work in large groups.
  • Children need to know what going to kindergarten will be like.
  • Parents should maintain home languages. If children learn in their home language, they will learn concepts more quickly at school.

For the second question, what do schools need to be ready for the children they will serve, the participants agreed that:

  • Schools need to meet more with parents and early childhood people before children start school. Kindergarten teachers can visit early childhood programs that serve their school and get to know the children and their parents.
  • Schools need to know more about the cultures and languages of the families they serve.
  • Schools need to spend more time in the children’s communities just like they want parents to spend time in schools. Teachers can attend children’s weekend or after-school activities or other events in children’s communities.
  • Schools need to focus more on children’s strengths and not give all the children labels. There are too many labels in the schools — one for every child.
  • Children from other cultures may appear not ready when they are! They may have skills and abilities that differ from the teacher’s. Teachers need to be ready to accept all children.

Participants seemed to enjoy the feeling of having their own knowledge and expertise verified by research around topics like the importance of social/emotional development.

After the meeting, the participants wouldn’t leave the building or even the parking lot. The parents, early childhood teachers and providers, and the elementary teachers had realized they all cared for the same children. Most of the continued conversation was about the necessity of parents, kindergarten teachers, and early childhood teachers getting together regularly because they discovered that they had more in common than they thought. Parents in the pilot discovered that it was easier to talk with kindergarten teachers about their child when it was a small, informal setting. Early childhood educators found that what they knew instinctively about child development was backed up by research. Kindergarten teachers found that parents were as much in support of increasing social and emotional development as they were.

Just about everyone agreed that social and emotional readiness was more important than knowing ABCs and 123s. Each group thought the other two groups would be more focused on academics, but everyone was more interested in children knowing how to get along with others, sit and listen, share, and take turns. All three groups also agreed that it was important that children maintain their home language and that bilingualism was important. (One monolingual teacher felt that learning two languages confuses children, but a bilingual parent pointed out that only monolingual people thought this. Bilingual people do not feel confused, she said.)

A number of teachers said that children can learn English in school and that it wasn’t crucial for children to learn English before kindergarten. The parents in this conversation were pleased to know that the kindergarten teachers in their group supported the maintenance of home language. But it is important to note that the kindergarten teachers in the pilot conversation were closely affiliated with the work my college does around the role of social justice and social change in education, and had been trained specifically in increasing their cultural competence and engaging in culturally relevant practice. While that set the tone for agreement around the role of culture and language in the pilot, it is equally important to note that there were many teachers who also felt that supporting home language and culture was important for children.

Participants also disagreed on some things. There was a lot of conversation about early labeling and the kind of information parents or early childhood teachers should share with kindergarten teachers about specific children. Some kindergarten teachers felt they wanted to know more about specific children before they started kindergarten and others wanted to discover children’s strengths and challenges on their own. Some parents wanted opportunities to tell teachers about their children and others didn’t want their children saddled with labels before even starting school.

Another area of disagreement was around the definition of “parent involvement.” Teachers saw it more as volunteering in the classroom and parents saw it more as working with their children in the evenings and on weekends. The teachers wanted parents to read to their children every night and help children learn to read. Many parents felt they should not have to teach children how to read because they didn’t know how to teach reading and they felt that was what the teachers were paid to do.

40 More

The success of the pilot conversation showed us that people really did want to talk to each other; they just didn’t quite know how to get started. The Getting School Ready team helped solve that problem by putting together a guide for conducting community conversations about school readiness — a guide that was used to conduct 40 more conversations throughout the county.

These conversations usually took place in someone’s home or a neutral place like a neighborhood library and included 10 to 15 people. We wanted each group to be small so that people really could talk to each other. We were careful not to have the conversations become parent-education classes where Getting School Ready team members told participants what they needed to know from the research about school readiness. A key feature of the project was the recruitment and training of parents from economically, racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse communities to serve as the conveners and facilitators of the conversations. Parent facilitators were specifically trained to keep participants focused on what they shared in common and what children need, not what grownups need.

The goal of the conversations was to have small gatherings of people the facilitators knew or who worked in nearby schools and early childhood programs. At 30 participants, the pilot was the largest of the community conversations. The Getting School Ready project helped with facilities, supplies, fliers, and the like, but it was the parent facilitators who took the lead in bringing together the grownups who worked with their children.

Because many of the children entering our King County public schools did not speak English at home, we were very intentional about the use of language in the conversations. We facilitated conversations in Cambodian, English, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Somali. When we worked with the Somali community, for example, the conversations were held in Somali, and translation was provided for English-speaking participants. These efforts gave parents a real voice in the conversations. This was sometimes a challenge for kindergarten teachers, most of whom were European-American, but many of them noted that this was the first time they had sat with parents from some of these communities and talked about children and school. A few said that it was also the first time they were not controlling the conversation; they had to rely on the interpreters. They saw how talkative and involved the parents were when conversing in their own language about things like wanting to have real conversations with teachers — not just getting little notes sent home in backpacks.

Teachers also saw how they themselves spoke less because they couldn’t always follow the conversations. One or two said they didn’t like it and that they really wanted the conversations to be in English. But then parents would not have participated and it would have been a more “traditional” meeting with the teachers talking and the parents and early childhood teachers listening.

When all was said and done, more than 400 parents, early childhood and elementary teachers, community members, school representatives, and others in 17 of 19 school districts in King County held 41 community conversations in seven different languages, which generated more than 15,000 comments for us to look through and analyze. This did not happen without disagreements and misunderstandings. At one of the conversations, the kindergarten teacher decided at the last minute not to come because she felt that parents’ expectations of her were too high — that parents wanted her to teach more than she could reasonably fit into a school day. The parents and early childhood teachers at this conversation were disappointed, but agreed that this kind of getting together was new for everyone and might not go as planned the first time. All the more reason for them to get to know that teacher better and work on more trust.

Top Responses

The next step was to take the 15,000 comments and look for areas of agreement. As diverse as the participants in these conversations may have been, the responses to the two questions were remarkably similar. We discovered that we did have some shared understandings of what children needed to be ready for school and what schools needed to be ready for them. A team of 12 worked to produce a document that could be used by everyone — parents, kindergarten teachers, early childhood teachers, and childcare providers — who touched the life of a child. Our priority was to keep the language simple and not try to divide responsibilities between parents, teachers, and caregivers. This led to our decision to write the document from a child’s perspective. (See sidebar, page 53.) This worked well in English, but not in all of the languages we would be using (e.g., Cambodian, Somali, and Vietnamese). For example, when members of the Somali community said that the booklet should not be written from a child’s perspective because that would be disrespectful in their community, we changed the Somali version of the booklet.

The Getting School Ready guide was written in Cambodian, Chinese, English, Russian, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese using accessible language. Getting School Ready represents the collective, collaborative voice of a group of grownups in the process of creating a village for our children. The Getting School Ready booklet (and the accompanying toolkit) was written by an 11-member committee and reviewed twice by a 23-member editorial panel of experts in early childhood education, child development, cultural relevancy, brain research, health, and family support. After the guides were field-tested with parents, childcare providers, early childhood educators, and kindergarten teachers, they were distributed to the communities that helped generate them. We also provided the guides and other school readiness resources in English and Spanish to libraries, schools, and early childhood programs. The guides are still in use, not only in King County, but throughout the state of Washington and in many other places in the United States.

We learned that these conversations can be messy work: The facilitator has to be very intentional about keeping the participants focused on places where they agree. Trust between parents, early childhood educators, and kindergarten teachers comes slowly and hesitantly; people have to be willing to feel a little awkward and uncomfortable working with people who may not share their language and/or culture, and willing to focus on children’s needs instead of grownups’ wants.

Keeping the groups small helped, and it also helped that the facilitators knew the parents, kindergarten teachers, and early childhood teachers and care providers. This made the conversations feel more comfortable for all participants. When we couldn’t agree, we decided to focus on what most of the participants could agree to. When disagreements arose as to who should be responsible for what role in a child’s life, we decided that we might never reach agreement on that, but we could agree to what children needed. For example, even though most participants agreed that social and emotional development was more important for school readiness than academic knowledge, not everyone agreed on who should be in charge of teaching the ABCs and 123s — parents, early childhood educators, or kindergarten teachers. Another example was when we had disagreements over prioritizing efficiency and inclusion. Most of us wanted to focus on inclusion so we agreed that things were just going to take longer than we planned. This meant that extra time would be needed at our own meetings so that any newcomer could be brought up to speed and that the community conversations would be held in a variety of languages — even though that meant more time needed for translation, interpretation, and being sure that everyone understood and could participate. The Getting School Ready project took the collaboration, cooperation, partnership, and patience of many, many people. And this was just the beginning. We have five years to get children ready for school and school ready for them. Fortunately, the children have intelligent, caring, collaborative grown-ups to help do just that.


Getting School Ready website

National Education Goals Panel
Getting a Good Start in School
(Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel, 1997).

National Education Goals Panel
Ready Schools (Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel, 1998).

National Education Goals Panel
Special Early Childhood Report 1997
(Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel, 1997).

Barbara T. Bowman
“Ready to Learn in School,” remarks to Getting School Ready Conference (2002).
Presentation on Talaris Research Institute website,
(click on Events at the top).

Debra R. Sullivan ( is the director of the Praxis Institute for Early Childhood Education in Seattle.