The Graduates: Launching The Next Generation Of Learners

By Shari Nacson

On a Friday in June at 11:15 a.m., the halls of the Early Childhood Enrichment Center (ECEC), located just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, begin to fill with parents and caregivers, some with balloons and signs. One mother holds a big, rainbow spiral lollipop because that signifies “special day” to her son. The rising kindergarteners have stepped out of their mixed-age classrooms, donning special t-shirts, hats, crowns, jingle bells and other accoutrements. Younger friends remain in the classrooms; they excitedly grab the signs they have made and the instruments they will clang as they cheer on their classroom elders — the pre-K Class of 2017.

congrats from the ladybugs
The pre-K class is cheered on by its community. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

The staff has worked hard over the years to develop a rite of passage that feels like an appropriate match to the myriad feelings that are stirred up in young children who are on the precipice of leaving their beloved early learning center. Not all kiddos are happy about this moment. Preschoolers want to be big, and yet their feelings of security and attachment are also big — making it tricky to transition from what has become a home-away-from-home during their most formative years.

Among ECEC’s rising kindergarteners, 80 percent will go to public schools. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

With cheers and a cacophony of preschool instruments, the processional begins at ECEC, a hub of economic, ethnic, religious and racial diversity where at any given time, according to the director, there are 25 to 30 different ethnicities represented. Led by a banner that reads, “We are sailing off to kindergarten!” the children’s faces range from joyful to confused. Some who don’t like the attention stay close to a trusted teacher, who helpfully narrates what’s going on. All of the children seem pleased to see their favorite grown-ups amid the crowd that flanks the halls.

boy with visor
Tillman Cole on his last day of preschool. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Lisa Farmer Cole says of her son, Tillman, “I’m excited that he’s excited.” Tillman, who will be 6 years old in September, has visited his new school and seems ready for the transition. His mother is asked if she went to preschool. “I did,” she says. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being away from my mother.” Her mother arrives in the middle of this anecdote, fondly nodding as her daughter recounts her own preschool days.

That was a half-day school day. Like most American preschoolers, Tillman has already mastered full-day school. September will be a new building, new people and new routines, but the hours will be similar to what he is used to.

we earned our stripes holding hands
“This is a fine age,” says one father. “She doesn’t need to get any older.” Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Cecilia Hyun is nostalgic watching her nearly 5-year-old son. “We’ve been coming here since he was 18 months old.” Looking in the direction of the building’s entrance, she recalls, “There was this one set of steps at the entrance that he couldn’t navigate when we first came. Time has gone by so quickly. I can’t believe we are here.”

Down the hall, Cameron Kissel says that his daughter Cassidy, age 5,  is excited to be in the processional amid the cheering crowd. Self-reflective, Kissel has some trepidation about this moment. “This is a fine age,” he says with tenderness. “She doesn’t need to get any older.” He imagines that most parents feel this way — wanting time to slow down and the sweet phases to endure.

smiling boy with crown
For Jordan Harris and the other rising kindergarteners, the world is about to become irreversibly bigger. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Stacy Jones says her son, Justus, age 5,  is eager to transition. The youngest of three kids, Justus is excited to ride the school bus with his older sister. Jones’ eldest child was clapped out of 4th grade the day before. It’s a time of many transitions in their family home. “I’m glad they celebrate the little things and the big accomplishments,” she says.


Shari Nacson is a Cleveland-based mother, editor, child development specialist and nonprofit consultant with a passion for the promotion of engaged citizenship via family and school-based service projects during early childhood.

Gabe Schaffer lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with his wife, three kids and several chickens. He has been, among other things, a freelance photojournalist for over 15 years.

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2017.