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Washington Teacher Kendra Yamamoto Sees Big Returns in Early Learning Programs

The Martin Luther King Elementary teacher shares how investing in our youngest students can set the stage for academic success.

March 5, 2018

There’s no role preschool teacher Kendra Yamamoto won’t tackle if it means children get the best start they can before entering kindergarten. She’s taught pre-K through third grade, and despite loving those early grades, she has a real soft spot for the youngest learners.

“One reason that [teaching is] so touching and so magical for me is that often it will be the first time they’re away from their parents.  I want them to feel like this is their second home, and so I’ve created an environment where there is a time for movement, a time for song and a time for sharing.”

The former kindergarten teacher continues, “I know where these kids need to be to be ready for kindergarten and my goal is that they’re not only ready, but more than ready — that they enter kindergarten ready for success. And they do.” 

Kendra Yamamoto, pictured with students, describes teaching preschool-aged children as "magical."

Preparing 4-year-olds for that transition includes always “reading the room,” as Kendra puts it, to see if it’s time for a music break, a story break, or perhaps time for a hug. 

“Also, knowing that 4-year-olds’ attention span is five minutes or so, I intentionally plan my day so that we are constantly moving.  Our day goes by really fast, but we are getting so much into our day.”              

This process nurtures trust from the parents, who sometimes are leaving their children for the first time. 

Research has shown that if you have a high-quality preschool experience, that for those kids, the return of investment is huge.

“I’m able to establish a relationship with the children as their teacher and their caregiver, but I’m also able to establish a relationship with their families. We can work together on student goals, whether they be social-emotional or academic goals, and together we become a team to help each student find success.”

Studies continue to emphasize the importance of early learning in a child’s future success in school. Martin Luther King Elementary recently conducted a study of third graders, students taught by Kendra Yamamoto as preschoolers.  The results surpassed her hopes. 

“Last year we looked at third graders who I had as preschoolers, and their success rate on the state test was above and beyond where kids were who did not have preschool experience.” 

Kendra Yamamoto shares a hug with students.

Because of high demand for preschool and limited spaces, Yamamoto came up with the idea for an evening preschool program. It would be free and take place one night a week (dinner included).

“King’s Early Explorers,” a grant-based program, started at King and has since grown to include three other Vancouver-area elementary schools. “I really want every child to have that opportunity for early learning, no matter what their income is or what neighborhood they live in.”

Yamamoto’s tireless advocacy for early learning opportunities doesn’t stop there.  She is the Jump Start coordinator for all 21 Vancouver public elementary schools. She’s also a member of the school district’s Early Learning Task Force.  There’s also the monthly e-newsletter she publishes — “Early Learning in Vancouver” — which has turned out to be a hit with families.  Translated into Spanish and Russian, the newsletter has become a critical communication tool.

Principal Janell Ephraim can’t say enough about Yamamoto’s drive.

“Kendra genuinely cares for people, regardless of who they are, or what barriers or struggles they bring to the classroom.”

In addition to supporting her students and their families, Yamamoto is the teacher mentor for all newly hired kindergarten teachers in Vancouver Public Schools. 

“Her mentoring is so important,” says Principal Ephraim, “because she’s working with those who are on the front lines serving our kids and their families directly.  We want to make sure that these new teachers have all the skills and strategies they need, and she helps them do that.”

Alison Priewe, one of Yamamoto’s mentees, says that Kendra’s presence in her kindergarten classroom is always a welcome addition for her and her students.

“From the first day I met her, she treated me like a friend, and that makes such a difference when you’re doing a job that’s pretty challenging and often emotionally draining.”

“Knowing that a 4-year-olds’ attention span is five minutes or so, I intentionally plan my day so that we are constantly moving.  Our day goes by really fast, but we are getting so much into our day,” says Yamamoto.

One cold winter night with 14 new teachers listening, Yamamoto leads a monthly educator training session. Tonight’s topic? The importance of building relationships with families. She offers simple strategies like using a daily communication tool that shows parents the progress their child is making.  She recommends displaying students’ work prominently in the classroom so parents can see the learning taking place. She also encourages her new teachers to hang in there, because the rewards are numerous and the return on investment for early learning education is huge. 

And her advice for anyone considering a career as a preschool teacher?

You’ll need to have lots of energy, lots of gusto, lots of patience, and always a great sense of humor. 

“What other job do you get to do that when you open the door, there are kids jumping up and down to hug you?”


Kathy Tuohey

Veteran producer Kathy Tuohey has been working in broadcast television for over 25 years. From daily segments to documentaries, her expertise includes arts programming, human interest stories and education specials. She is managing producer of the Golden Apple Awards, produces the Pathways to Excellence education series, and is a contributor to IN Close.  This Northwest native’s natural curiosity about the people and places of our region keeps her on the lookout for the next great story.

More stories by Kathy Tuohey