Kindergartners dressed in blue shirts and khakis sit on the gym floor of Allegheny K-5 with their classmates. A few are visibly nervous, but the moms and dads standing around them are the ones shedding tears.
It’s the first day of kindergarten, a universal rite of passage into academia.
Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers and administrators said it's important to help get both kids and parents comfortable with a new routine. They were invited to the morning assembly, but were asked to say their goodbyes before the young students went into their classrooms.
Allegheny K-5 principal Molly O’Malley Argueta said showing parents that the students will have a routine helps them transition.
“We like to keep their first day the same as any other day. Parents are nervous, of course kids are nervous, so we like to get kids into a routine as quickly as possible. [The morning assembly] is a place where kids can meet and we set expectations for the day,” she said.
At the end of the assembly, O’Malley Argueta had the students blow their parents a kiss, which prompted more tears – from the parents.
“They’re still babies when they come to us,” said Michilene Pegher, principal of Manchester K-8. “It’s just as hard on the parents.”
Pegher said she has parents walk their students into the classroom so they can see where they’ll be for the day. She said she tries shepherd them into the school quickly to avoid prolonging an emotional goodbye.
Thomas Jones stood outside of Allegheny K-5 with his daughter, Tara, next to a large banner that read “first day of kindergarten.”
“It’s going to be an adjustment for everyone,” he said. “I stayed up until about 5 a.m. last night just running through the entire history of my going to school and thinking about what it was like for me and what it will be like for her.”
When prompted, Tara counts from 11 to 18. She forgets the number 15, but her dad says that's not unusual.
“It’s something we’re working on,” Jones said. “Other than the academic stuff like the numbers and the letters and stuff like that, we’re just trying to get her to understand that it’s nice to be friendly with everybody but not everybody is going to be a friend."
Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Anthony Hamlet also dropped by a few kindergarten classrooms. While kindergarten isn’t required in Pennsylvania – students don’t have to start school until age 8 – he said enrollment can help reduce the district’s achievement gap between black and white students.
“It’s important for kids to start learning at birth. That’s really where the achievement gap start," Hamlet said. "They need to come to school being exposed to a certain amount of words. So when kids don’t come with that level, the achievement gap already begins."
Schools are also trying to make sure kindergartners are regular attenders. School leaders stressed that attendance is an important habit to start in kindergarten.
Hamlet said it’s vital that parents are engaged in the first year of their child’s academic journey. He said he’s encouraged principals to continue parent involvement initiatives so the first day won’t be the only day they’re in the school.