Bouquets of Sharpened Pencils

“I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” It’s a line from the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” a late ’90s movie I can’t help but watch whenever I see that it’s on.

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks star in this cute little love story about a relationship that started in an online chatroom back in the days when internet access was still via dial-up.

I thought of bouquets of sharpened pencils because it’s almost back-to-school time, and, like many parents, I just spent the weekend buying new school supplies that are sure to keep my daughter organized and focused all year long.

I love this time of year. It’s kind of like a mid-year reboot — full of promise, the anticipation of crisp fall air (and football), and a head full of dreams about how organized I’m going to be — new pencils, new paper, new colored pens and folders! Bliss!

More than 1,000 local boys and girls will walk into their first day of kindergarten before month’s end. And several of our year-round schools are already underway. If recent statistics hold true, we’ll know two things about students in Henderson County this year:

• More than half will be considered “not ready” for school on day one of kindergarten.

• More than half in all grades will qualify for the free and reduced meals program.

If you’re like most people, you may be wondering, “What does ‘being ready’ mean?” The truth is, there is not a nice, clean checklist. Young children develop at their own speed and learn as they are exposed to new things in their environments.

Early childhood experts and K-12 educators across our nation have worked together to define what it means, but early life experiences vary widely among this age group, and children will walk into day one with a range of skills and abilities.

In general, being “ready” has less to do with children’s ability to name letters and numbers or spell their name and more to do with their ability to self-regulate, problem-solve, be imaginative and curious, take initiative, and be socially and emotionally competent. All of these skills are the business of early childhood development, and are developed through play during the first five years of life — play with their friends, with adults and by themselves.

All that development begins at birth and is shaped by the child’s environment. Early childhood environments that are rich with love and are safe and nurturing are best at preparing children for academic and social success. Environments that lack strong emotional connections with caring adults, are unsafe, unstable and high on stress are worse.

Often, the most detrimental thing impeding positive child development is poverty (and all of its impact).

Within the first 20 days of school, every kindergartner’s reading and math literacy skills will be assessed, and identifying numbers and letters becomes important. These state-mandated assessments will be repeated three times during the year and used to monitor students’ progress.

The good news is that county educators are doing a great job of taking the majority of those children from being “not ready” to being at grade level before the end of kindergarten. But imagine where a child who starts behind could have been if he or she had started “ready.”

Being ready is a two-way street. We want children to be ready for school, and we also want schools to be ready to provide positive learning environments with developmentally appropriate teaching methods that include lots of play, movement and engaging interactions. Additionally, for many children in homes with scarce resources, school can provide stability, routine and regular meals.

Here are some ways you can help impact the lives of our young children this school year:

School counselors or the Title I Department at the HCPS Central Office can connect you with the organizations that are managing local backpack programs. Backpacks full of food go home with our community’s neediest students on weekends and during breaks to ensure they have food available.

The schools’ HELP program works with families of students who are homeless. They need supplies (school supplies, toiletries, etc.).

Interfaith Assistance Ministries conducts an annual back-to-school supply drive and provides a Children’s Clothing Closet. School supplies, backpacks, shoes, coats and clothes as well as financial donations are needed.

Schools need volunteers to tutor children or read to a classroom. After-school programs like the Boys & Girls Club or Salvation Army need your support of both time and financial resources.

A number of local organizations are working together on the front end to increase the number of children who enter school ready to learn. Smart Start of Henderson County, the United Way of Henderson County and the Children and Family Resource Center work together to help address this. As nonprofits, we all need your support.

So, in the movie, he skips the bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils and actually takes her a bouquet of daisies. Be still, my heart.

Elisha Freeman is executive director of the Children & Family Resource Center (www.childrenandfamily.org; 828-698-0674).

This article was originally seen here.

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