Pilot program hopes to reduce racial achievement gap in Pittsburgh Public Schools’ kindergarteners

Kindergarten has changed since what most of us remember. It’s a lot less play and a lot more academic rigor. But what’s old is new again, and educators are realizing the value of play and of the simple messages of Mister Rogers.

A pilot program in Pittsburgh Public Schools is seeking to reduce the racial achievement gap by getting kids off to a better start in kindergarten through third grade. They’re testing it out at two schools, Beechwood PreK-5 in Beechview and Weil PreK-5 in the Hill District, and they’re already seeing improvements in learning and behavior.

Reading, writing and arithmetic are still taught in kindergarten, but with this new pilot program, play is teaching important lessons too. Kindergartener Jesus Huerta at Beechview PreK – 5 School enjoys wooden letter puzzles. “I’m playing with Cain and I’m sharing,” Huerta says. A sensory table and light table are some of the new activities to complement traditional toys.

Carol Barone-Martin, who oversees the pilot program for Pittsburgh Public Schools, says, “What’s being given to the child is given with an intention and a reason, and we know what they’re going to learn as an outcome from that. It’s much more than sitting there and doing a worksheet.”

Flexible furniture that lets kids choose different types of seats is also part of the pilot program. There are stools, floor cushions, cushions to go on top of traditional chairs and seats that rock and spin, paid for primarily by grant money and donations. Kindergartener Kendrick Warren describes his favorite seat that’s low to the floor with a movable backrest. “You can move it down to lay down for our cool down,” Warren says.

Beechview kindergarten teacher Leanne Kreuger says the new seats are making a difference. “I find that there are not really many behavioral problems. I’m not having to redirect the kids a lot.  (The seats) let them get those wiggles out when they need to focus on what they’re learning.”

Another part of the pilot program is “Mister Rogers Mondays” which brings kids the timeless lessons in the original TV show. Principal Sally Rushford says slowing down the lessons has helped too. Instead of kids being bored, she says, “the opposite happens. It helps them to go more in-depth in their thinking, and it helps them to sustain attention, which we know is a big problem in our society now.”

All of the elements come together to enhance learning and development at a critical time in these children’s lives.   Kreuger says, “It’s a different kind of learning. They’re learning their letters and numbers like we always do, but they’re also learning more life lessons and how to interact with people which is really important too.”

 As long as the pilot program continues to be successful, the district wants to implement it in more schools.