Tony Watlington still remembers crying on his first day of kindergarten, as he looked out the window of his classroom and watched his mother and uncle drive away after they dropped him off.
His misery “lasted about eight minutes,” he said. “Then I loved school.”
The Philadelphia superintendent told that story Thursday as he and other school officials urged families to enroll their children for kindergarten next year — and to do so early, if possible, so that both parents and the district can plan.
“Kindergarten plays a critical role in setting the foundation for success in school,” Watlington said at the Potter-Thomas Elementary School in Kensington, during a launch event for this year’s Thrive at Five campaign.
Research shows that children who attend kindergarten have better academic skills, better social-emotional and behavioral skills, and higher confidence levels throughout their school careers, he said.
The district would like parents to register their children by May 31, although applications are accepted after that, all the way into the fall after school starts. All children who turn five years old by Sept. 1 are eligible for kindergarten next year.
One major incentive for parents to enroll their children early: Kindergarten seats in a given school might fill up quickly, and those who register later might not get their child a seat at their neighborhood school.
Kindergarten is not mandatory in Pennsylvania, and not fully reimbursed by the state, and many districts still offer only half-day programs. Amid fiscal problems in the district, former Superintendent David Hornbeck in the 1990’s nevertheless worked to make all programs full-day.
Diane Castelbuono, the district’s deputy chief for early childhood, said that kindergarten enrollment declined in district schools from roughly 9,880 students in 2019-20 to 7,140 in 2020-21 — a 28% drop —but then jumped by 9% in 2021-22.
At the same time, kindergarten enrollment lagged behind enrollment in the first grade by about 600 students in 2021-22, which indicates the likelihood that not all eligible children enrolled in kindergarten that year.
Historically, about 35% of parents who enroll their children in kindergarten register in the summer and fall, Castelbuono said, but the district is hoping this year to reduce that percentage.
Public school enrollment is down nationally, especially in the elementary grades, Castelbuono noted, but officials are hoping to buck that trend here. This year, about 9,000 students have enrolled in kindergarten. The district’s goal is for between 10,000 and 11,000 students to enroll in kindergarten for the 2023-24 school year, she added.
During Thursday’s Thrive by Five event, Watlington and Castelbuono got help from Mia, a kindergarten student at Potter-Thomas Elementary, and her mother Jasmine DeJesus.
“Kindergarten is important on many levels,” DeJesus said. It helps her daughter “think outside the box, with things I can’t teach at home.”
Kindergarten has helped Mia with problem-solving, and she can now count to high numbers, DeJesus added.
“I know sight words and letters from A to Z,” Mia said.
She then climbed on a chair to reach the microphone and added: “If you want to go to kindergarten, you have to be five.”
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org.