For a woman with a mouthful of consonants for a last name, my friend Chris Chmielniak plays to a tough room: a kindergarten class. “Man, they have a hard time with my name!” laughs the 18-year classroom veteran. “Adults do!”

Seasoned but sprightly, with smiling eyes and an articulate wit, Chmielniak is busy setting up her kindergarten classroom in a Shoreline public school, where she arrived in 2003 after several years at Seattle’s private Bush School. Usually she has the kids decorate the classroom, but this year she’s doing it differently. In the literacy corner, she’ll hang posters from a curriculum company that explain things like how to choose a book to read. In the math area, she’ll be writing a new “aim” on the board every day. 

Book advice and written aims for five-year-olds who haven’t yet learned to read? “The ‘aim’ is a best practice for Common Core,” she says, stifling a groan. 

Don’t misunderstand: Chmielniak is all for the goals of the new standards, or Common Core, which Washington state children will be tested against for the first time this school year. The standards, underwritten in part by the Gates Foundation and eased in across 45 states over recent years, are equal-opportunity controversial—loathed by Tea Party types as a federal hijacking of education, criticized by some progressives as teach-to-the-test rote—but Chmielniak admires their emphasis on critical thinking and higher-level analysis, which reminds her of the 17-child kindergarten classrooms of her private school.  

It’s just that her public school reality is a far cry from that. On the first day of school, 23 squirming five-year-olds will report to her classroom—up to a third of whom, she estimates, have never been in a classroom before. (And that’s a small class for Washington, the 47th worst state in the union for student-to-teacher ratio. If Chmielniak taught in Seattle, she’d have more like 28 kids.) Some of them will need to be taught how to stand in a line, how to hold a pencil. While a few will be gobbling second-grade-level Magic Tree House books (in her Shoreline district, these are the kids who predictably live in the neighborhoods with views of the water), others (who predictably live along the Highway 99 corridor), haven’t yet learned that books are read from left to right or the difference between a 3 and an E.

“We get these little wet kittens in the fall, and you take a long time just getting them in a circle and quiet and taking their turns and not picking their nose,” Chmielniak says with the kind of fondness only a kindergarten teacher could muster. “Learning how to play with others, how to use free choice time, learning how to learn—I think under Common Core, that’s going to go away. Many kids don’t learn to read until the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade, so to assume that all kids will become readers in kindergarten”—a Common Core standard—“is an urgency not aligned with the natural development of young children.” 

Indeed the Common Core’s K–3 standards were drafted with little input from early childhood educators and were publicly opposed in 2010 by an alliance of early learning experts who criticized their heavy-on-the-didactic, low-on-the-play methods. Since then, school reform blogs have exploded with anecdotal concurrence.

Force-feeding curriculum where the basics and the play and the gentle community building used to be—that’s what leaves Chmielniak “shaken to her core,” and what this year made her an unofficial crusader for Universal Pre-K, the taxpayer-funded year of -preschool for all that Seattleites will vote on in November. Chmielniak believes we need preschool for all to deliver the basics kindergarten no longer will. Kids have to get the building blocks somewhere—their letters, their sounds, how to behave within a community. And that’s all kids, lake viewers and Highway 99ers alike.

“For kids for whom English is a problem, or not getting enough sleep is a problem—those kids never get a leg up,” Chmielniak says. “Quality preschool for all would help level the playing field.” She’s thinking now of a past student we’ll call Z: chronically late, chaotically parented, deprived of nurture, sullen. “She didn’t get very far in her skills because there was so much to do just getting her ready to learn every day. I’d always think, If only she’d had just one year of preschool…” 

Tim Burgess, the Seattle City Council member leading the Universal Pre-K charge, says the research is plain: If a student isn’t reading up to grade level by third grade, indications are good that student won’t graduate high school. “We know from almost 30 years of gold-standard research that kids in quality preschools will soar—including poor kids, nonnative English speakers, refugees, all kids. So we know what to do. It’s just a matter of doing it.” 

And if it could start last year, Chmielniak says with a grim smile—that’d be great.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Seattle Met.