It takes a village to prepare a kindergartener

Remember kindergarten, that long-ago experience marking the beginning of "real" school? And remember the first day, when you smiled bravely as you hugged your parents goodbye, pretending not to notice the tears welling up in your mother's eyes?

For most five-year-olds heading off to their first day of kindergarten this fall, preparation still centers primarily around words of advice and encouragement at home. For others, the big day may be preceded by a low-key, get-acquainted visit to the school.

In Boston, children entering kindergarten this week enjoyed another special preview a few days ago at the Children's Museum. There they explored a school bus, met a kindergarten teacher, and talked to a crossing guard.

But even that ranks as kid stuff compared with plans under way in Boston for next year's incoming class. Educators in the city have just launched a program called Countdown to Kindergarten, a year-long effort to help families prepare children who will enter school in 2001.

Beginning this month, parents of four-year-olds will receive booklets in six languages, along with posters. Later, parents will be able to tour schools. They'll also get instruction in filling out applications, choosing a school, and arranging a visit to a campus.

A campus? For kindergarten? Has anyone ever thought of just calling it an elementary school? No wonder the coordinator of the initiative concedes that the registration process can be "overwhelming."

Next August, as a finale, incoming kindergartners will receive gift bags containing a few school supplies and special T-shirts. Already the city has handed out T-shirts to this year's class. Wearing them this week entitles pint-sized shoppers to discounts during "Kindergarten Days" at local stores. Shop early, shop often - the consumer message starts young. Not so many years ago, the first rite of passage for school-age children involved getting a library card.

It's enough to make long-ago students recall the simplicity of their own kindergarten countdowns, when preparations were as basic as shopping for new shoes, buying a small rug for rest hour, and listening carefully as Mom explained the rules of behavior: Share. Put things back where you found them. Say please and thank you.

These elaborate new preparations also make the rest of us wonder: How did we ever survive kindergarten with only our parents to orient us? Unlike these children, most of us hadn't even had the experience of day care to ease the transition to school.

However worthy the Boston program might prove to be, it serves as a measure of the way in which school - and everything else - has become more complex. Think of those other bastions of bureaucracy, the registry of motor vehicles and the Internal Revenue Service. Often the bureaucratic logic appears to be: First, complicate something that was once relatively simple. Then, instead of untangling the system itself, create programs to explain the complications.

It's possible that the year-long kindergarten preparation in Boston will be worth every penny of its $300,000 annual cost, almost half of which comes from the city and the rest from private groups. Already other educators around the country are watching with interest.

But this extended effort does raise a few modest questions: How many teachers could school boards hire for $300,000? And how many books could school librarians buy with the T-shirt money?

No one can minimize the importance of readiness, whatever the activity. The Boy Scouts have the right idea: "Be prepared." Getting off to a good start in school can set the tone for a successful education.

Still, do 21st-century parents and students necessarily need legions of "experts" and "professionals" at every turn, armed with check-off lists as complicated as tax forms? Answers to that question may be hard to measure.

In the meantime, educators and the rest of us might consider the advice of a famous New Englander. "Simplify, simplify," urged Thoreau, that paragon of simplicity, who presumably wouldn't have needed a special T-shirt to succeed as a five-year-old.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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