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Rethinking School Readiness

By Debra R. Sullivan

The success of the pilot conversation showed us that people really did want to talk to each other; they just didn't quite know how to get started. The Getting School Ready team helped solve that problem by putting together a guide for conducting community conversations about school readiness — a guide that was used to conduct 40 more conversations throughout the county.

These conversations usually took place in someone's home or a neutral place like a neighborhood library and included 10 to 15 people. We wanted each group to be small so that people really could talk to each other. We were careful not to have the conversations become parent-education classes where Getting School Ready team members told participants what they needed to know from the research about school readiness. A key feature of the project was the recruitment and training of parents from economically, racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse communities to serve as the conveners and facilitators of the conversations. Parent facilitators were specifically trained to keep participants focused on what they shared in common and what children need, not what grownups need.

The goal of the conversations was to have small gatherings of people the facilitators knew or who worked in nearby schools and early childhood programs. At 30 participants, the pilot was the largest of the community conversations. The Getting School Ready project helped with facilities, supplies, fliers, and the like, but it was the parent facilitators who took the lead in bringing together the grownups who worked with their children.

Because many of the children entering our King County public schools did not speak English at home, we were very intentional about the use of language in the conversations. We facilitated conversations in Cambodian, English, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Somali. When we worked with the Somali community, for example, the conversations were held in Somali, and translation was provided for English-speaking participants. These efforts gave parents a real voice in the conversations. This was sometimes a challenge for kindergarten teachers, most of whom were European-American, but many of them noted that this was the first time they had sat with parents from some of these communities and talked about children and school. A few said that it was also the first time they were not controlling the conversation; they had to rely on the interpreters. They saw how talkative and involved the parents were when conversing in their own language about things like wanting to have real conversations with teachers — not just getting little notes sent home in backpacks.

Teachers also saw how they themselves spoke less because they couldn't always follow the conversations. One or two said they didn't like it and that they really wanted the conversations to be in English. But then parents would not have participated and it would have been a more "traditional" meeting with the teachers talking and the parents and early childhood teachers listening.

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