Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Hardest Decision I Still Haven't Made

by Kathryn McCarthy, Director of Donor Relations

For me, making a big decision is a process; a painful, tedious, annoying experience for all involved.  For example, before purchasing my dishwasher I spent hours, weeks scouring Consumer Reports, customer reviews, reviewing features and comparing brands and models.  I probed friends, neighbors, and the sales staff at Home Depot for recommendations.  I created a spreadsheet matrix; I shopped multiple stores and watched closely for sales.  Ultimately it took months for me to find a dishwasher, but in the end I was confident with my decision and six years later I still love my dishwasher.

So now imagine my process for deciding where my sweet, precious first born should go to kindergarten.  He will start this fall and at this point I am completely annoyed with myself – and here’s the kicker – I have not even decided!  My husband and I have spent over a year thinking about and researching the best place for our sweet, precious, first born son to attend kindergarten. We’ve narrowed it down to two schools and we’ve learned a lot along the way.

1.   Explore your options and prioritize what matters to you. A great thing about living in Pierce County and Tacoma is the many school options. There are traditional public schools, public Montessori, private Montessori, secular private schools, private Christian and Catholic Schools. While having so many options can be a bit overwhelming, it’s a testament to our community’s acknowledgement that every child and family is different and what works for one does not necessarily work for others.  Look beyond your neighborhood school because the best fit for you and your child might not be the closest school. And if you live in a neighborhood like us, you may live very close to several schools.

Prioritize what's most important to your child and family, taking into consideration academics, special education, sports, arts, and other extracurricular activities but also practicalities like tuition, transportation, and aftercare.  You can find test scores for public schools and detailed information about the programs offered (check out the links at the end of this article.)

2.   Listen up working parents - before and after care varies, a lot.  My husband and I both work full-time so for us before and after care is really, really important. This is where our child will spend 2-3 hours a day. The folks at before and after care are responsible for safely getting him to and from class. And school is not open as much as my office. I don’t get winter break, spring break, or the Friday before a holiday off – so I need a safe, loving and reliable place to take my child. Some care is onsite, and others require busing. Make sure you understand what the before and after care options are and then talk to them.

3.   Visit prospective schools.  To help me make a decision I again created a spreadsheet matrix. It really helped me to compare schools and see the differences.  By doing this I was able to narrow our search down to four schools. And the last couple weeks we’ve visited all four and the corresponding before and after care options.  We chose to bring our son along with us on three of the tours. I wanted him to see the schools and observe his reactions. We met teachers, principals and other parents and asked a lot of questions.

What will the school do to ensure that my child doesn't fall behind? What happens if my child gets behind? Or if my child is gifted, how do you develop those gifts even if the rest of the class doesn't have them? What is your approach to discipline? Can you walk me through a typical day? How many kids are in the class? How often do you assess a child’s progress?

4.   Think long-term.  A sticking point for me personally has been trying to think beyond kindergarten. Right now we are stuck between a great public school in our neighborhood and a private school that’s close but not in our neighborhood. Kindergarten is just one year; I want to set my son up for success through elementary, middle, high school, college and life. And we’re thinking through the goals we have as a family and parents. What if we move to a different neighborhood?  Is private school worth the extra cost? This is a great public elementary, but what will our options be for middle school and high school?

In the end we know our son and our family needs the best. Over the next couple months we’ll make our final decision on kindergarten and this decision will have tremendous impact on my son’s life, so he deserves us taking our time, doing our homework and putting his needs first.

1.   OSPI - State website with test scores and tons of information about schools across Washington.

2.   This is a national website where you can search schools across the US and find test scores.  It also has tips and articles on picking a school.

3.   Schools Districts (find schools individual websites) The following is a list of all sixteen public school districts in Pierce County, Washington:


Friday, March 21, 2014

Summer Babies

by Maureen Faccia, Executive Vice President

I have a summer baby!  She was born 7-27-2007 at 2:07pm, and so far the numerology is disturbingly accurate.  Today she is a very special, vibrant and exciting first grader.  She loves horses, friends, and books.
Two years ago this month, it was time for me to register her for kindergarten and I had so many concerns:  Was she ready?  Could she keep up?  Would her confidence suffer as her peers were able to do all kinds of things before she was able to?
Since I work in this field, I know “ready” for kindergarten is beyond whether or not my child knows how to recite the alphabet or count to 20.  Ready at this age is very much about how well she can focus in the classroom for the 15 minute bursts of instruction and practice.  Summertime babies, those children who will forever be the youngest in the class because they just barely meet the cutoff for school registration, can often start school with a deficit simply because they are 11 months behind their September peers.
Aside from sympathetic friends and school teachers, I found a few excellent resources that I want to share.
o   Call your school! Most school districts offer developmental screenings for kids 5 and under which can help you assess your child’s readiness for school. They can also provide learning standards (click here for an example) for kindergarten so you can assess your child at home.
o   Make sure your child is enrolled in a quality pre-school before Kindergarten.  85% of brain development occurs before the age of 5, so maximizing the exposure your child can have before they enter Kindergarten is crucial.  Ask your preschool teacher if they are specifically working to prepare your child for language, reading, math and other elements your local kindergarten will teach. 
o   Access “Ready for Kindergarten” assessment tools that you can use at home on the web through United Way of Pierce County and other organizations who work in this field.
 How did I finally make the decision to send my summertime baby to Kindergarten?  I was most worried about her focus and ability to follow instructions.  A tool I found helpful was a “focus” game I played with her.   The task was to provide a series of things she needed to do sequentially and assess how many she could complete and how long it took to complete the task.  With a carrot of a play-date at stake, I was shocked to witness the speed with which my daughter was able to cross the room to retrieve a blue ball, return to the sofa and pick up the red socks, pet the dog and go to the door.  It became clearer to me that my daughter was more ready for kindergarten than I realized.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How to know a child is ready for kindergarten

by Nalani Linder and Nola Renz, Community Impact Managers

How to know a child is ready for kindergarten? For many children, one’s fifth birthday is a milestone in that it’s time to leave the familiar scene of home, child care or preschool to enter kindergarten.  With registration opening this month for school districts throughout Pierce County, parents and caregivers of five year olds might wonder not only how to register for kindergarten, but even more: is my child ready?

What does it mean to be ‘ready’? Most school district offices offer ‘checklists’ of basic reading and math skills as well as language and social development skills to help you know if your child is prepared for a successful kindergarten experience.  Here’s a sample:
  1. Counts from 1 to 20.
  2. Prints his or her first name.
  3. Follows simple directions – listens and completes instructions.
  4. Sits still – can sit long enough to listen to a story and/or participate in class activities.
  5. Uses the restroom – knows when they have to go to the bathroom and can do so by themselves.
  6. Recognizes letters – They don’t have to be reading, but letter recognition is important.
  7. Works on fine and gross motor skills – jumping, running, throwing a ball, holding a pencil and cutting with scissors.
  8. Gets along with peers – knows how to share and take turns.
  9. Handles emotions – knows her feelings and has coping skills.
  10. Shows an interest in learning – likes to listen to stories, music, and is stimulated by the information.
For an example of a complete list, see A Family’s Guide to Kindergarten Readiness from Tacoma Public Schools.

How does your child feel about it?  We want every five year old to be excited and eager to start kindergarten, but know that sometimes that’s not the case. The Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL) has a wonderful checklist for kindergarten readiness as seen through the eyes of a child.  This ‘child’s checklist’ includes things like ‘I feel comfortable with the school I’ll be attending’ and ‘I feel ready to start kindergarten’.  Consider taking your child to your local school’s playground on a weekend to talk about their own feelings of beginning kindergarten. 
What if my four year old is ready?  Do you have a four year old who’s reading up a storm?  It may seem like she’s ready to make the jump to kindergarten, but think twice before you enroll her. Experts caution in putting your child in too early, as academic readiness doesn’t always mean social/emotional readiness for the long days in the kindergarten classroom. Think too about the long term implication: do you want to commit your child to being the youngest in their classes when he is in middle and high school?  Many kindergarten teachers encourage parents to consider having their little ones in a high quality preschool an extra year, to let them continue to grow and learn so they are ready for kindergarten success in all ways.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

One Powerful Moment

by Timm Dowling, Resource Development Executive & Lindsey Burks, Marketing Intern

As the son of a public educator and product of our education system, I know that a major obstacle for learning is classroom size. Upwards of twenty or thirty students per teacher can become a barrier, not just for the teacher but for every student. Even if every student was prepared to learn and paid attention, they still have their own unique learning challenges and styles. Add to the mix an assortment of disabilities, family crises and social distractions, it becomes a wonder how teachers manage to transfer knowledge to their students’ brains. That’s where tutors can really make a difference.

Sarah, an AmeriCorp tutor, was asked by the principal at an elementary school to help two struggling students, a second grader and third grader, whom had recently enrolled in the school for the first time. Both lacked basic skills like number and letter recognition, so keeping up with their peers was near impossible. Their teachers simply could not devote the time necessary to get them caught up, and did not want to cause embarrassment by placing them in the kindergarten level classes. The Principal proposed that Sarah come to the school and tutor them one-on-one every day to give them the tools they needed to be integrated back into their classes. With the materials and lesson plans provided by their teachers, Sarah began meeting with the students for an hour each day to tackle math and reading basics. In four months, the students have made amazing progress. The third grader is grasping math concepts such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Both can count to 100 and are progressing to counting to 1,000. Sarah's most powerful moment, the moment that made her experience as a tutor completely worthwhile, was listening to the second grader read the first two pages of Cat in the Hat aloud to her. Despite their disadvantages at the beginning of the school year, the students were able to continue their education at a normal rate and it is no longer a question whether success is in their futures, but rather it is something they look forward to.

You do not have to be an AmeriCorp member to make a positive impact on a child’s life; you simply must have the desire to improve someone’s life and the gusto to act. Tutoring is a worthwhile endeavor, meaningful for both the tutor and the student. Get in touch with our Volunteer Center to learn more about how to become a tutor.

For more information contact Cindy Evans, Senior Volunteer Center Associate, at or 253-597-6457.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Magical Formula for Reading

by Timm Dowling, Resource Development Executive

Few people can remember the exact moment when they first learned to read. Now I may not be able to tell you what I ate for breakfast this morning, but I do remember my first breakthrough with reading. I was lucky enough to attend a private school until fourth grade- St. Charles Borromeo, right here in Tacoma. As I think back to first grade, a few memories flash in my mind; my first girlfriend (whatever that meant), a role in the Christmas pageant  (no lines, but it was a big deal), and a trip to the Principal’s office for reasons undisclosed (okay, rough housing at recess). More important than any of those recollections was Sister Margaret’s advice one faithful day when we were reading aloud in class.

“Let the words flow like a river, Timm.” I can honestly say this was the first time it clicked. I no longer viewed the words separately. I was not completely focused on the correct pronunciation but I linked the words together and by the end of the sentence a picture was painted in my mind. Holy cow, I can read!

Even though I had plenty of books for practice, the passion for reading had not yet ignited. I was an outdoors kid and sitting down to read never seemed appetizing. Bed time stories were enough to put me to sleep. However, by third grade, Harry Potter mania was rising fast. My best friends were already on the third book in the series, so it was necessary for me to catch up to remain cool. Noticing this, my best friend began to call me after school and we would read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aloud to each other over the phone. He was an experienced reader, having learned to read before kindergarten so I subconsciously picked up a few tips here and there (like how to pronounce Hermione).

I read through each of the Harry Potter books in three days or less. It wasn’t the first book I ever read, but it was the first book that captured my imagination to such a degree that I couldn’t put it down. Books over two hundred pages tend to intimidate younger readers, but JK Rowling found an enticingly magical formula. I ate it up like the thousands of other kids around the globe. I would get lost in these books. It was the first time I was engulfed in the story and could visualize the characters, hear their voices, and feel their emotions. I was transported to another world, lost in a tale of adventure, adversity and accomplishment. I went on to read all seven books, twice.

From that point on, I was no longer discouraged by the length of a book. I went on to read other series like Pendragon and Eragon. While I enjoyed fantasy and science-fiction in my free time, the constant practice it gave my mind made other genres enjoyable too. Comprehension and fulfillment translated into the classroom as I read and completed assignments for books like the Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, and Fahrenheit 451. I have no doubt my reading skills translated into the writing skills that helped earn my degree in Communication. Today, at twenty four years of age I have amassed a pretty good collection of books and always have one in rotation - it’s a hobby I’ll enjoy the rest of my life.

There’s no doubt that the exposure to a high quality early education led to the success I have enjoyed. So many factors created opportunities for me. A sturdy home environment, tools that prepared me for school and incredible educators who enabled my passion for learning all contributed to my small, but significant, breakthrough which granted me the life I have today. United Way of Pierce County works hard to provide these same components to every child in our community through our focus on early childhood education and our programs such as Launch into Literacy. Help us ignite the passion for countless Pierce County children by hosting a book drive or donating to Launch into Literacy.