NOEL KING, HOST:
Officials in Boston have made a priority of getting kids into preschool. The public education system there has spots for nearly 3,000 students, and more spots are expected to open in the future. But officials also want to be sure that what kids learn in preschool doesn't fade when they hit grade school. Carrie Jung, from member station WBUR, visited a classroom to find out how the district plans to do that.
KELLY STEVENS: Did we all make it?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yeah.
CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: In Kelly Stevens' kindergarten classroom, each day begins with circle time for what sounds like a menu of lesson options.
STEVENS: Ms. Stevens is calling friends to read at the green table. We're constructing boats. We are also constructing out of clay. And when I brought over here...
JUNG: Students Marco Carias Castellanos and Holden Free chose a writing activity today. But there's no worksheet in front of them. Instead, they're standing in front of wolf statues that they made out of blocks, and their assignment is to write labels for each of its parts.
MARCO CARIAS CASTELLANOS: I'm making an ear.
HOLDEN FREE: Ear - E, E, E.
MARCO: E, E.
JUNG: Yes, this sounds a lot like preschool. But these play-based learning activities are happening in kindergarten here in East Boston, an example of a new type of curriculum that the city has been rolling out over the last five years. We've all heard the phrase that kindergarten is the new first grade, but this is a shift away.
STEVENS: I used to be very, like, regimented and structured. I didn't like the blocks 'cause it was messy and it was loud.
JUNG: Stevens has been with the district for almost 20 years. For most of her career, she led all of the activities. Now, her room is filled with literal play stations where kids can go independently. There's a jungle corner, a painting station and even a mini kitchen.
JASON SACHS: Instead of sort of this top-down approach where the teacher has the knowledge, you have to let the kids explore.
JUNG: Jason Sachs in charge of early childhood education at Boston Public Schools. He says, this approach allows teachers to juggle young students with different skill sets. That's a big challenge for teachers. Boston has invested a lot into preschool, but they can't get to everyone. The city still has a wait list of about 1,000 kids this year. So if you're one of the lucky ones...
SACHS: The curriculum can stretch and you can grow with it.
JUNG: Or if you're on the waiting list...
SACHS: Then there still needs to be room for you to navigate and be a contributor.
JUNG: Sachs says the goal is to make sure that the investment in preschool doesn't fade away and Boston students who do attend can maintain their academic boost.
LORI CONNORS-TADROS: We are in the middle of this sea change.
JUNG: Lori Connors-Tadros is an early education consultant of sorts who helps states improve their early-learning policies. She says these types of changes are happening across the country.
CONNORS-TADROS: Now they're investing in specific guidelines and practices for what is high-quality kindergarten, what is high-quality practices in first through third grade.
JUNG: So is all of this effort actually making a difference? That's what a group of university researchers are investigating here in Boston. Until that wraps up, we're relying on the observations of teachers like Kelly Stevens.
STEVENS: I see significant changes in their oral language development at the kindergarten level.
JUNG: Which is why, she says, undergoing what felt like a seismic shift in how she teaches was totally worth it. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung in Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SHIMMER")
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