There was a time when kindergarten was the place where children became acclimated to school, learned to socialize with others and mastered the building blocks of learning - shapes, numbers and the ABCs.
But increasingly, educators have recognized the need for children to be socialized and prepared to learn before they get to kindergarten.
"This is really ... a fairly new notion in this country," said Rolf Grafwallner, head of early learning for the State Department of Education.
To help raise prekindergarten skills, state and local government leaders, along with education advocacy and service organizations, have formed the Leadership in Action Program.
In October, the organization unveiled a five-year agenda to ensure that all children up to age 5 have access to quality early-childhood care and education programs, that the staff in those programs are adequately trained, and that parents of young children are successful in being their child's first teacher. The goal is that by the 2006-2007 school year, 75 percent of all kindergartners will be fully ready for school.
The plan will be submitted to the General Assembly in February. Parts of the plan - such as the use of Judith P. Hoyer early learning centers - already are being funded. Other parts require little or no money, such as the everyday things parents can do at home to give preschool-age children a boost.
"The best chance we have in eliminating or closing the achievement gap, which is such a major issue in public education, is to start as early as you can," Grafwallner said.
School readiness is more than just knowing the alphabet and being able to count to 10, although those are important benchmarks, said Barbara Squires, family support strategist for the Safe and Sound Campaign, one of the education advocacy organizations involved in the push for increased school readiness.
"It also means that the child has the social skills that will enable him or her to do well in a social setting," Squires said. "That they understand the concept of sharing, of sitting and listening and being quiet for short periods of time."
Experts say that for the majority of children, though, parents and child-care providers can do simple things to help prepare preschoolers:
Have plenty of books around. Go to the library. Eat at least one meal together and have conversation throughout. Assign a simple chore to do every day.
"The more that is done with young children, the better off they are going to be," said Grafwallner.