Back to School, with a little help from SUN

September 20, 2017

Jose and his little sister, Dafne, loll about the house, enjoying the warm September afternoon. Cartoons play on the TV. French doors stand open off the family’s living room-dining room-kitchen, letting in a breeze. The children’s new parakeets chirp in the shade.

Their father, Jose Luis, is away, working the first of a double shift. Their mother Michelle sits at the kitchen table, fielding hugs and questions about snacks.

Michelle speaks up during a parent group that meets as part of the Early Kindergarten Transition program.

Jose, 8, just returned to Rigler Elementary, where he began the 4th grade. In June, when he finished third grade, he wasn’t sure he’d ever return to the school with his friends in the fall. The family, along with more than a dozen others, had been pushed out of affordable apartments in the nearby Normandy complex by rising rents. Many families moved east from the Portland into the Parkrose school district. Some struggled to find anything affordable, and have stayed with friends or in their cars.

Michelle knows her family has been lucky. A White couple in their 60s who live less than two miles away from the Normandy, and just a mile from Rigler, offered Michelle’s family a newly-built backyard cottage in exchange for rent they could truly afford. Now the children play with the couple’s dog “Happy” in a grassy yard trimmed in flowers, next to a pond stocked with goldfish.

The family of four shares the one-bedroom, two-bathroom loft apartment. The kids sleep in the loft above their parent’s bedroom. The kitchen doubles as a living room, dining room and den. It’s both bright and cozy and, Jose says, it feels safe. The two families get together to share dinners, and to practice one another’s native language.

Dafne, 5, flits between the couple’s home and her own. She helps the owners in the garden, and even got her own pair of tiny gardening gloves.

On this afternoon, she dashes into the yard to point at her birds, then at the fish, then bounces back inside, where she is distracted by TV and then hangs intermittently off her mother’s neck.

She is about to start kindergarten, and she grins wide at the thought. That’s because she has already met many of her classmates through a program launched by Portland Public Schools and supported by Multnomah County called Early Kindergarten Transition. She knew one of the kindergarten teachers because her brother Jose had gone through the program too, four years earlier.

Incoming kindergartners who participate in the Early Kindergarten Transition program attend half-day classes for three weeks in the summer. They learn the basics — how to hold a pencil, write their names, flush the toilet, wash their hands. They learn how to share, stand in line and raise their hands to speak.

The Early Kindergarten Transition program, or EKT as it’s called, doesn’t simply ease the transition into kindergarten. Students who complete the program register higher reading scores and better rates of attendance than their peers.

[Read a 2016 study about the long-term effects of Early Childhood Transition]

“Children who attend EKT become leaders in the classroom,” said Brooke Chilton Timmons, Early Learning Coordinator for the county’s Youth and Family Services Division. “And families feel comfortable becoming part of a parent teacher group, volunteering, asking for help and building stronger connections at school.”

While kids attend classes, so do their parents. The adults learn about the importance of arriving to school on time and good attendance. They learn about childhood brain development, and tools to help their kids with homework. Perhaps the most important thing they come away with is new relationships with other parents and school staff that help them to advocate for their kids.

Fernando Madrid leads the parent groups at Rigler's Early Kindergarten Transition program.

Early Kindergarten Transition launched in 2010 by Portland Public Schools. Multnomah County has since expanded the program to schools in five other districts. Those are schools with the highest percentage of low-income students, and where the county has already invested in Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, or SUN.

Those schools have more kids like Jose and Dafne — kids who have been pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods as Portland becomes wealthier and housing costs soar. Kids leave the parks and schools they know, lose connections with friends and neighbors, and live farther from extended family.

The Early Kindergarten Transition program is especially important for those kids.

“Whether it’s Fernando [Madrid, a EKT coordinator at Rigler], who is a fabulous advocate, or its building a strong relationship with a teacher,” said Chilton Timmons, “those are things that can help provide stability for a child experiencing stress in other parts of their lives.”

Fernando Madrid has worked at Rigler for more than a decade. For four years he’s coordinated the parent classes (and a summer bar-be-que) for the Transition program. During the year, Madrid works in the front office, but he can be hard to track down; he might be tracking down a microwave for a family in need, translating a call for a parent, translating English language mail for another, hugging someone’s stuffed animal, showing a child to a classroom or joking with another. He might be marching down to a landlord’s office to question a no-cause eviction. He might be protesting for affordable rents.

Every child knows his name, and, although he’s not a teacher, they call him “Maestro Fernando.” They see him on the street and dive bomb him with hugs. They smile the way a child should at her father — happy and unsurprised to see him.

He said the Early Kindergarten Transition program has allowed him to build that bond with students and their parents from the very beginning.

“We want our kids to be happy, to be excited to come to school, and not to be afraid. It’s really hard to learn when kids come with a lot of anxiety,” Madrid said. But when they are in EKT, they build relationships with each other, with the teachers, with other parents.”

Twice a week for three weeks in the summer Madrid also  meets with the parents. At Rigler, most parents — most of them mothers — speak Spanish as a first language. But English, Vietnamese and Somali-speaking parents come too. They tackle a new topic each session, such as how children’s brains work, and the correlation between parent involvement and high school and college graduation rates.

“The good thing about this is parents also make connections with other parents and teachers,” he said. “Those connections are really important.”

Amparo Garcia-Yurchenco has taught kindergarten for 17 years. Four years ago she picked up Rigler’s summer Early Kindergarten Transition program, even though she said she wasn’t sure she wanted to cut into her long summer break. But the connections she made with students and parents during that first summer changed everything.

“Before, five years ago, every single kid cried and wanted their mom. Now, they come and they say, ‘I got this. I know my teacher. I know my room, I know the office,’” she said. “They come into school feeling strong. They already feel successful. They look at the other kids, and ask, ‘why are they crying?’”

Amparo Garcia-Yurchenco leads a class in song as part of the Early Kindergarten Transition program.

The kids who attended Early Childhood Transition comfort bewildered and fearful classmates. “It’s ok,” they say. “You’ll go home soon.” They sooth the teachers too. “I’ll help you teacher,” they tell Garcia-Yurchenco.

Meanwhile parents build friendships with each other and with the school staff. For parents who immigrated to the United States, that support network makes the school feel like a safe place to come for anything.

“White parents know how to navigate services. White parents will pick up the phone or send an email. Latino parents, if they need something, they come to the school first,” said Garcia-Yurchenco. “Then we help them. We are teachers, nurses, psychologists. Parents tell me when they are divorcing, homeless...  They know this is a safe place. I’m not just the teacher. I am your friend. I fight for you. If you need to walk, I’ll walk with you.”

Garcia-Yurchenco was one of the first to learn in January when the new owners of the Normandy apartment complex announced that rent would double for its 18 tenants. Children who had been in her class years earlier came to tell her the news. Michelle’s son, Jose, was one of them.

The third grader sought out Garcia-Yurchenco during recess. “I want to tell you, they’re going to kick us out of the apartment,” she remembers Jose saying. “He was telling me, ‘I don’t know what we are going to do.’”

She hugged him. “Thank you for trusting me,” she said. Garcia-Yurchenco joined Fernando Madrid, Rigler principal T.J. Fuller and other school staff in organizing a rally and letter-writing campaign to bring awareness to the gentrification that was pushing their families out of the neighborhood.

“We are not just a school,” she said. “We’re a community.”

A sign points newcomers to Rigler's Early Kindergarten Transition program
A sign points newcomers to Rigler's Early Kindergarten Transition program

For Michelle and Jose, that community formed four years ago, when Jose entered the Early Kindergarten Transition program and Michelle began volunteering in the classroom. Her daughter Dafne was a toddler then, but Garcia-Yurchenco made space for her, Michelle said.

“I spent a lot of time there,” Michelle said. “And my son, he saw me there, volunteering. I needed to be there. Now he’s older, he doesn’t want me in his classroom. And I need to give him space.”

So as a volunteer, Michelle took on new roles, arriving for lunch and staying through recess. This fall, though,  she’s back in kindergarten, volunteering in her daughter’s class. The transition is easier for her kids than for her, she said, laughing when she thought back to Jose’s first day of kindergarten.

Other kids were crying, holding on to their moms. But Jose knew he would get to play and go home at the end of the day. “He went in independent,” she said. “I was the one crying.”