Getting Ready! for Kindergarten

Ready! for Kindergarten

Recent data highlights barriers to school readiness. In Muhlenberg County, programs are already underway to help close the gap.

Article and photo by Stacie Barton, Leader-News Editor

The Governor’s Office of Early Childhood released the 2014 Early Childhood Profiles on March 12 and in Muhlenberg County, the profile shows that only 33 percent of the 331 kindergartners screened at the start of the school year were “ready to succeed” by standards set in the Brigance Screener, a new tool used measure kindergarten readiness.

But even before the screenings and data-crunching began, community leaders in the county were working hard to help parents prepare their children for kindergarten, through a variety of programs spearheaded by the Felix E. Martin Jr. Foundation. “If you start behind, you are more likely to stay behind,” said Vicki Yonts, director of SOAR Project, the foundation's early childhood education program.

The screener is a good baseline for teachers to evaluate the needs of their students and while many screened as “not ready” for kindergarten, this doesn't mean they should not be enrolled, Yonts said. She and foundation president Kathy Jacobi work closely to implement programs that will help parents of young children get them to where they need to be.

“Studies show that there is often a five-year range in ability for incoming kindergartners,” Jacobi said. Students are coming to school with skill levels equivalent to children ages three to eight-years-old and kindergarten teachers work with a wide range of ability.

READY! for Kindergarten is an important step in closing that readiness gap. The program was developed by The Children's Reading Foundation and provides parents with materials and strategies for teaching the pre-reading and pre-math skills their children will need for success in kindergarten.

This school year, there are 150 families going through a pilot program of READY! for Kindergarten, being offered by the SOAR Project.

These parents of preschool-age children are expected to attend a series of three 90-minute classes. They learn how to spend a few minutes each day preparing their children for a lifetime of positive learning experiences.

“We call it 'playing with a purpose'”, said Yonts.

At each class parents are given a bag of tools, cleverly disguised as toys, that teach counting, sorting, color and alphabet recognition and more. Naming letters and shapes, counting and recognizing numbers, following directions and relating to others are precisely the skills measured by the Brigance Screener, implemented in all Kentucky school districts for the first time last fall.

“It was a real eye-opener,” said Ashley Johnson, a Head Start preschool teacher at Greenville Elementary School who is also helping with READY! for Kindergarten. “It's so different from the past. They have to know how to count to 30, say the alphabet and know their address and phone number.”

Johnson says that surrounding counties who participated in a pilot program scored high on the Brigance Screener this year, because they knew what to expect and could collaborate with parents to  prepare their children.

Muhlenberg County fared poorly in this first year of screening. A staggering 67.4 percent of kindergartners in the county were not ready to “engage in and benefit from early learning experiences,” according to the governor's study. State-wide averages were closer to 51 percent. 

The governor's office hopes that the county profiles will highlight barriers to school readiness and help community leaders, early childhood councils and school districts develop strategies to prepare young children for school.

“Better preparing children for school has positive long-term effects on school achievement,” Gov. Steve Breshear said in a statement about the study, produced by the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics. “The Early Childhood Profile is a tool that can help communities assure that every child in the Commonwealth gets the best possible start in life,” Breshear said.

Jacobi couldn't agree more. “Until third grade, children are reading to learn to read. From there on, they are reading to get information.” If students aren't reading at grade level by third grade, they struggle to make up lost ground, she said.

Muhlenberg County Superintendent Randy McCarty said he was impressed by how many parents have come out to participate in READY! for Kindergarten. “These parents are not just sitting back, waiting for education to come to them.”

McCarty said it's never too early to start talking to children about what they want to be when they grow up. With the focus of education shifting to college and career readiness, students can't wait until high school to start thinking about these choices. “We don't want to be playing catch-up to reach grade-level,” McCarty said. Starting at an early age to instill a love of reading and school is important. “You can never read with your kids too much,” he added.

READY! for Kindergarten is only one way SOAR Project is reaching out to parents. Partnerships with Head Start, Muhlenberg County Public Libraries and Dolly Parton's Imagination Library have produced several programs that promote early reading. Community bookshelves in doctor's offices and local businesses, support for Head Start staff and summer reading programs, to name a few, have come out of this effort by SOAR to foster early reading and education in the county.

“With help from the Imagination Library, we have given away 62,000 books since the foundation started our early childhood initiative,” Jacobi said.

This heavy saturation of programs to promote early learning comes at a cost. The Felix E. Martin Jr. Foundation has awarded more than $600,000 in grants to support early childhood education in the county.

The foundation provides the county with a unique opportunity to target this group. 

“The Martin Foundation is awesome,” McCarty said. They have provided funding to allow for programs that will increase awareness and preparedness that the district alone would not have been able to offer. “In the past,” McCarty said, “it was a per-school approach.” Individual schools had their own programs and practices. “This is the first county-wide effort.”

Administrators and teachers alike believe the numbers will improve in coming years. Now that educators are familiar with what is expected, the task is to make the public aware of just how much their youngsters need to know to be ready for their first year of school.

Through programs like READY! for Kindergarten, Muhlenberg County is headed in the right direction.