Taking a cue from parents, St. Mary's Visitation School in Elm Grove is laying the groundwork to begin a junior kindergarten program for up to 28 3-year-olds next fall.
"A number of parents asked about it, so we began looking at it at the beginning of the year," Principal Mary Tretow said. "We worked on it this past fall with our teachers and parent leadership, and now we are ready to take registration."
The next step will be to hire a full-time K3 teacher and an aide. The school will offer a choice of attending either two half-days or three half-days per week.
School and parish families have enrollment priority, but a community open house is set for Jan. 29.
Educators see benefits
K3 programs already are established at many schools, including St. Dominic in Brookfield and St. Jude in Wauwatosa. College-level education experts say this is the beginning of a K3 wave.
"We are on the front end of this trend," said Deb Dosemagen, director of graduate education and associate professor of education and mathematics at Mount Mary College. "We are seeing more and more of this because there is a credibility factor associated with existing schools by parents. In addition, these programs use the word 'curriculum' in describing what they have to offer."
Dosemagen said the real benefit of K3 is the extension of play into a somewhat more structured environment. To illustrate, she mentioned Finland, where school is compulsory at age 7.
"Almost all of those students are in a preschool program where they play and work on curriculum areas at their own pace," Dosemagen said. "They do very well on standardized tests."
Play is self-paced, but guided
Intentional play and development of social skills as a way to develop academic acumen are elements supported by Jill Rinzell, assistant professor of education and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha.
"Play-based activities in groups are valuable because children can develop at their own pace," Rinzell said. "By the time they are 4, they know how to hold a writing implement and they are developing their language skill through phonics and rhymes. They are also learning more self control."
Rinzell noted that exposing children to academics at a young age is not a new concept.
"We know that children do well if they come from a home where a parent reads to them," Rinzell said. "They have larger vocabularies. The key is to keep the learning fun and without pressure."
Busy lifestyles contribute
The K3 emergence may very well be attributed to today's busier lifestyle, Tretow said.
"Today's parents may both work, or at least one works full time and the other part time," she said. "At the same time, they want to be able to give their children an opportunity to learn at an early age."
Nora Mihm, an Elm Grove mother of four St. Mary's students, is considering enrolling her youngest in the K3 program.
"A lot of parents are working, and the school has been a caring and nurturing environment," Mihm said. "They are working and they are looking for a place where it is academic, but that their children are fundamentally having fun."
Teachers see interest
That task is up to teachers such as Anne Guerino and Dana Pawlak, who have K4 classes at St. Mary's.
"Kids are learning more, earlier" Pawlak said. "They already know technology at 3."
Guerino said the current interest in K3 creates a sense of déjà vu for her.
"I remember when we started 4K, parents lined up to enroll their kids," she said. "I feel that is going to happen again."
WHAT: open house for parents considering 3-year-old kindergarten
WHERE: St. Mary's Visitation School, 13000 Juneau Blvd., Elm Grove
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 29
CONTACT: (262) 782-7057
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