Let's Play School

Jane Hawes

Imani Hairston Hague marched into the "mock kindergarten" corner of the Columbus Metropolitan Library's Linden branch like she owned the place. In a way, the 4-year-old girl does - along with every other preschooler in the city.

"Kindergarten readiness is a community issue," said Kathy Shahbodaghi, the library system's public services director. "The stakes are high now."

The Ready for Kindergarten Areas, aka "mock kindergartens," are being set up in various CML branches. Linden's is the third, following the one at the Karl Road branch, which opened in 2013, and one at the Driving Park branch, which opened last summer. They each cost about $12,000-$15,000 to create, often repurposing furniture from elsewhere in the system.

The areas seek to emulate a kindergarten setting. There are pint-sized tables and chairs, Smart Boards, magnetic boards with letters, tactile reading-readiness toys, books, computers without time limits and more.

"It's not too complex for kids her age," said Imani's mother, Taiwianna Hague, as she watched her daughter bounce from one spot to the next - computers, followed by a turn driving the play school bus, then toys and finally books. "Everything is set up at her level."

The goal, said Shahbodaghi, is to create a mock kindergarten in every new or renovated branch, just as CML has set up Homework Help Centers in every branch for grade- and high-school students.

"Our No. 1 strategy is (called) 'Young Minds,' to be of service to children and their families from birth through their teen years," Shahbodaghi said. "That means we devote the bulk of our resources to this strategy. Within this strategy, there are three areas of focus: kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading and high-school graduation."

Stephanie Steelman, the youth services supervisor at the Linden branch, said this strategy is earning the CML system quite the reputation in larger library circles: "I go to conferences," Steelman said, "and people will come up to me and say, 'You're the library that doesn't do adult programming, aren't you?'"

It is an unusual strategy, said Shahbodaghi, adding that there is no precedent elsewhere in the country for the CML's shift to the Young Minds Strategy over the last decade. But it does reflect the organization's decision to see its people as educators, rather than its buildings as book repositories.

"We are very focused on how we can work with others in our community to collectively have an impact," Shahbodaghi said.

The mock kindergartens quickly attract customers - both the children and their parents. The brightly colored toys and carefully selected books are a lure, but so are the comfortable couches and chairs where a parent can curl up with a book to read with a child.

Denisha Cochran is already visiting the Linden mock kindergarten with her 2-year-old son Messiah.

"I generally come around 3 (p.m.)," Cochran said, while sitting in a passenger seat of the bus Messiah was steering. "We come a lot because he's just like, 'Mommy, I want to read books.'"

More mock kindergartens are in the pipeline already: The Southeast branch will debut its area within the next couple of months, as will the Whitehall branch in April.

"We have six (geographic) areas that have been targeted," Shahbodaghi said, explaining the areas have been selected because "kindergarten readiness scores are low there and poverty is higher."

Kindergarten readiness is measured in Ohio by a test known as the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment or KRA. While the test measures a variety of components in a child, including social and emotional development, physical well-being and math skills, the CML is using the data to guide its contributions to language and literacy readiness.

Though her son Messiah is still 2 to 3 years away from this assessment, his mother said she's pouncing on the opportunity to start getting him ready at age 2.

"His cognitive development, for me, is an issue, so we wanted it (the mock kindergarten) to help him," Cochran said. "He'll learn how to spell and being around other kids teaches him how to pronounce words."

Hague said she is "kind of nervous" about the issue of kindergarten readiness with Imani, but seeing her daughter enthusiastically embrace the mock kindergarten experience makes her feel much better.

"It's purely self-help," Hague said, "and she loves it."