We'll follow the class of veteran kindergarten teacher Becky Moffat, who is profiled in today's paper. We'll get to know her students. We'll see them beam when they count to 100 for the first time and cringe when they forget what comes after "P" in the alphabet. We'll track their progress on the way to becoming young readers, writers and mathematicians.
And we'll examine why kindergarten, more than ever, might be the most important grade of all.
Salt Lake City kindergarten teachers gathered in Highland High's auditorium for a back-to-school blast spotlighting everything they must do differently this year:
here for galleries, articles and more in the kindergarten series
"Our students should write every day."
"Be explicit in what we want from kids."
"Focus on oral language, complete sentences with prepositions."
"The point of assessment is to know your kids well."
Yes, kindergarten has changed. A lot.
It's a long way from the play-filled "children's garden" German educator Friedrich Froebel envisioned when he led the first classes in the 1830s. What began as a transition year between home and school has evolved into a scholastic enterprise seen as the foundation of all future learning.
It's more academics, less play. More reading, less recess. More numbers, no naps.
"When I started in 1978, kindergarten was an introduction to school," said Becky Moffat, a veteran kindergarten teacher at North Star Elementary in Salt Lake City. "We were not required to teach reading. Now, my kindergarten looks more like my first grade looked 10 years ago."
That's not necessarily a bad thing, experts and educators say, but the system needs to respond - perhaps by making kindergarten in Utah mandatory, even extending it to a full day - if teachers are to deliver little readers, writers, adders and subtracters to the first grade.
The next generation: Today's kids are more sophisticated than their counterparts of decades past. They operate computers, manipulate video-game controls and absorb many of the messages mass media throw their way. (Think Spider-Man adhesive bandages versus those boring beige ones.)
Today's students are savvier, even at age 5.
"They seem to be exposed to so much more than they were before," said Paul Puzey, a curriculum specialist at the Utah Office of Education.
Early-childhood research has advanced significantly, too.
"We have a much greater understanding of how much children can learn in the early years," said Alan Simpson, a spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
At the same time, the standards and accountability movement so prevalent in secondary schools has influenced kindergarten's new look.
Call it the "push-down effect."
State and federal policymakers have boosted benchmarks and mandated standardized tests as a way to quantify school quality at all grade levels. Their cry for stronger high school graduates brought exit exams - pass 'em or forfeit a diploma - and increased course requirements.
Early-childhood education experts have been watching this trend with a mix of excitement and reservation.
"One of the fears is that increased pressure in the third grade and above will lead to teachers or schools simply pushing curriculum downward," Simpson said. "And with low budgets, schools don't have a great deal of time or money to put into designing a new curriculum for kindergarten. So they risk taking the second-grade curriculum and applying it to kindergarten without considering what is developmentally appropriate. We can't forget that they're 5 years old."
The state school board realized last year that it couldn't simply raise high school expectations without a greater investment in the early grades. Many students don't get a strong start in elementary school. Before they know it, they're foundering in middle and high school.
In response to the board's reform proposal - and Gov. Olene Walker's urging - the 2004 Legislature committed $15 million to augment school districts' matching investment in bolstering reading programs for kindergarten through third grade.
"Day" dreamers: When the last day of school arrived in June, Moffat wasn't ready to cut her kindergartners loose.
She knew a few of her students would be moving on to first grade this fall without conquering their consonants or knowing their numbers - despite a daily drill of both for an entire school year. She couldn't help but wonder if those children would catch up or if she was setting them up for 12 years of shortfalls and frustration.
"Some years, I'm ready because they're ready," she said. "I'm not ready to let them go yet. I need one more month."
Or more hours during the week. She and many of her colleagues have been begging to expand their half-day classes to a full day so they can spend more time on the curriculum.
Nationally, 56 percent of kindergartners attend a full-day program, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.. In a massive kindergarten study released in June, the center also reports that those students are likely to achieve bigger gains on reading and math than their half-day counterparts.
That kind of investment is unlikely in Utah, where per-pupil spending lags behind the rest of the nation as it is. Jordan School District alone estimates a price tag of $6.6 million just to add the teachers necessary for full-day kindergarten.
But Salt Lake City school officials are devoting $800,000 - a third of the district's additional K-3 reading money - for a full-day kindergarten class at most elementaries.
District leaders believe the outcome will be worth it.
"We have a lot of students who come to school with many different needs, and more time to address those needs is an obvious solution," said Ann Cook, who will oversee Salt Lake City's full-day kindergarten program. "Kindergarten teachers have been saying for years that the three hours we've been able to provide are not enough to cover everything."