State leaders say early childhood education programs could be a key factor in breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and several proposed bills could change how districts run and fund preschool and kindergarten.
Primarily, the goal of the bills is to get more kids in preschool, provide the option for a longer kindergarten school day and set statewide standards for testing kindergarten preparedness.
“I agree that we do need some bills to focus on early childhood and school readiness,” said Adam McMickell, who is the assessment and instructional technology coordinator for Ogden School District.
McMickell pulled data from Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessments to compare scores among kids who entered kindergarten in 2010 and were still in the Ogden School District by fifth grade. Over that five year span, 72 percent of kids who scored well below on the test in kindergarten were still “below” or “well below” the benchmarks according to the fifth grade scores.
About 75 percent of students who scored at or above benchmarks when entering kindergarten were still at or above benchmarks in fifth grade.
“Is readiness everything? No,” said McMickell, noting there are many variables, “but it does set students up for future success and greatly reduces some of the compounding issues.”
Jennie Pollock, a kindergarten teacher at Roy Elementary School, said more than half of her students are coming to school without basic pre-kindergarten skills.
“For some reason they just haven’t been exposed, or there is a learning delay,” she said. “The gap gets bigger as they get older. If we’re not getting them caught up in time, that’s when it gets frustrating for kids and we see their confidence drop.”
To help give more kids access to preschool programs, Senate Bill 101, sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, would provide scholarships for children caught in intergenerational poverty to attend high-quality preschools. According to the Voices for Utah Children website, the average cost for a child to attend a year of preschool in Utah is $8,052.
“If a student is not reading by third grade at third grade level, the likelihood they will not complete school goes up significantly because at that point in time students are moving from ’learning to read’ to ’reading to learn,’” Millner told members of the Senate Education Standing Committee on Feb. 4.
Scholarships could be especially helpful in places like Ogden, where about 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, which is often cited as an indicator of financial difficulty among families in a school district.
Preschool classes are offered at Ogden’s Larry H. and Gail Miller Family YMCA Community Family Center. The YMCA and Ogden School District also partner to provide preschool classes at James Madison, Dee, Lincoln and Gramercy elementary schools, as well as on the campus of the district offices.
Another piece of legislation, House Bill 42, would require the State Board of Education to develop entry and exit assessments for all optional, enhanced kindergarten programs, and to administer a grant for kindergarten academic improvement programs. Right now, districts conduct their own assessments of kids registering for kindergarten to determine if they’re ready for school or are going to need extra help to catch up.
Annalynne Yamashita, of Roy, is the parent of a kindergarten student. She used to teach first grade, and said a lot of children were behind in school because of what they missed at home.
“There were quite a few kids that just had not been exposed to things — simple things like reading books or the alphabet,” she said.
Unfortunately some families are facing challenges, often financial, that hurt children.
“What do you leave out of your budget to survive?” Pollock asked. “Those things we used to consider needs, like books, have now become wants.”
And sometimes parents don’t realize how simple things, such as speaking to children in full sentences, can make a difference.
“A lot of times it’s easy for parents to just give commands — ‘Come eat’ versus ‘Let’s come to the table and eat, because it’s time for dinner,’ ” Pollock said.
Many local schools participate in a Treehouse Museum program called “Get Ready for Kindergarten with Miss Bindergarten,” which provides a backpack full of kindergarten readiness activities for families.
IS YOUR CHILD KINDERGARTEN READY?
Pollock said children entering kindergarten should generally be able to:
- Listen to a story
- Understand directions
- Speak in complete sentences
- Have a grasp of letters & can sing the alphabet
- Understand symbols (letters versus numbers, for example)
The state of Utah funds an online kindergarten reading program called UPSTART, which includes use of a free computer and internet for qualifying students. For information see their website.
OPTIONAL ALL DAY KINDERGARTEN
Another proposal, House Bill 41, would give local school boards authority to offer supplemental hours of instruction for kindergarten students, for a fee. The extra hours would not be daycare but “a full academic day of kindergarten education for children who are already in kindergarten,” according to the bill’s sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.
Eliason said if a school district chooses to offer the optional program, they need to find a way to fund it.
"If a school does offer it, and a family can't pay additional fees, they're waived under the traditional fee waiver policy," he said.
Zac Williams, spokesman for Ogden School District, said in an email that his district wouldn’t plan to charge parents for extended hours.
Melissa Gibby, of Roy, has a son who did half-day kindergarten and her daughter attends full-day kindergarten at Roy Elementary.
“He's struggling and she's doing great, so I feel maybe full-time is doing good,” Gibby said.
Pollock said extra hours of instruction can be beneficial.
“With the curriculum we teach now, and where we need to get these kids, there’s not enough time in the day when it’s half-day kindergarten,” she said.