Majority of children in Jefferson start out school without some needed skills.

Two-thirds of Jefferson County Public schoolchildren enter kindergarten unprepared to learn the reading and math skills they are expected to master, according to a school readiness survey given districtwide for the first time last fall.

Just 34.6 percent of incoming kindergartners were armed with the basic knowledge they needed to begin classes without extra help — such as knowing shapes, letters, numbers and telling right from left.

Those results vary widely among JCPS’ 90 elementary schools — from 77.3 percent ready for kindergarten at the magnet Brandeis Elementary to just 6.5 percent at Portland Elementary.

The results, recently finalized by JCPS and released in advance of statewide results expected soon, reflect larger racial and income gaps among the district’s students.

Forty percent of white, non-Hispanic students and 58 percent of Asians were prepared for kindergarten districtwide, compared with 30 percent of African Americans, 24.5 percent of low-income students and 16.3 percent of Hispanics.

Without concerted and difficult intervention, those early learning gaps can grow to the point that by high school — or even middle school — catching up becomes exceedingly difficult.

It’s very difficult for kids who start out behind,” said Dewey Hensley, JCPS’s chief academic officer. “It’s a major issue we have to address.”

With JCPS scrambling under intense state pressure to improve some of Kentucky’s worst-performing schools, officials say the kindergarten-readiness results highlight a need to ensure that fewer students are behind before they even begin school.

It also comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union call for a major expansion of early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs as a way to reduce achievement gaps and boost graduation rates.

Expanding preschool

Kentucky is one of 39 states that offer state-funded preschool to low-income 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds with disabilities.

But budget constraints reduced the state-funded preschool budget from $75.1 million in 2010 to $71.3 million in 2013.

Felicia Smith, an associate commissioner at the Kentucky Department of Education, said some districts have cut back as a result. JCPS’ Head Start, early start and state-subsidized preschools together served 5,326 children in 2012-13, compared with 5,813 in 2010-11, district data show.

State officials estimate that 20 percent to 30 percent of children get no preschool, public or private. And among early childhood programs, educational quality varies.

“There are lots of children who need to be served who aren’t,” said Cindy Heine of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

The committee wants the state to serve more children by raising the qualification threshold for state-paid preschool from 150 percent of poverty ($35,325 for a family of four) to 200 percent ($47,100 for the same family). But that would cost $31 million more a year.

With new funding unlikely amid tight budgets, JCPS and Metro United Way are planning a push for greater parent education, extended school for struggling early learners and working with private providers to help them teach necessary skills.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday — who recently said he tried to “rile up” Louisville by likening its lowest-performing schools to “academic genocide” — said improving readiness rates are “a big piece of the puzzle” in improving schools.

“Low-performing schools need to make sure kids get early childhood experiences,” he said. “That’s why we put in this measure, to show communities where they need to be investing.”

Those struggling with large numbers of unprepared students agree that could help.

At Portland Elementary, for example, principal Angela Hosch said many of her students come from disadvantaged homes where books, reading time, exposure to vocabulary and educational experiences are limited.

“For some, we literally teach them how to hold a book and turn the pages,” Hosch said.

Ready or not

To better understand such learning gaps, the education department adopted the Brigance Kindergarten screen last fall, giving it to 34,500 children in more than 100 school districts, including JCPS, as a pilot. This year, all 174 districts will use it.

We look for whether they can identify their letters, uppercase and lowercase, can they count in sequence, do they know right from left, are they able to identify shapes and colors,” said Shervita West-Jordan, principal of Brandeis Elementary in Louisville.

Jefferson County used the survey at all 90 of its elementary schools this year. According to its results:

• Seventeen of 90 elementary schools started the year with at least half of their kindergartners meeting or exceeding the readiness benchmark.

• Overall, girls were better prepared than boys, 38.8 percent to 30.6 percent.

• Limited-English and Hispanic students were among the least ready, at 18.7 and 16.3 respectively.

Preliminary statewide data last fall found that 24 percent to 28 percent of Kentucky children were considered prepared for kindergarten.

Holliday expects those numbers may rise once all districts take the survey next fall, and said the final numbers for this year may be around 30 percent.

Running out of time

Holliday has argued that, unless children can read at grade level by third grade, the odds of graduating from high school are “greatly diminished.”

That emphasis reflects a growing body of research showing that young brains develop faster in the first five years than previously thought. At the same time, test-driven accountability has pushed academics into earlier years.

That was very much on the mind of Shantil Newton, a 31-year-old marketing analyst, when she was raising her 6-year-old son, Michael.

She was able to stay home in his first year to “read him books and talk to him no matter what I was doing. … It was always a learning moment.”

When she went back to work, she pulled him out of a preschool that she didn’t think was teaching enough. Soon she was paying $16,000 a year for two children in a quality preschool that included extra-curricular computer, music and ballet lessons.

Now a 6-year-old kindergartner at Brandeis Elementary, Michael is thriving, she said.

But not every parent has that education or wherewithal.

Hosch, the Portland principal, said some of her parents are working two low-paying jobs and can’t stay home to help their children learn. Others qualify for state-subsidized preschool but don’t send their children because they lack transportation and decide it’s too far away.

Or there’s a lack of awareness about the importance of early learning. Then, when kindergarten starts, it can make for a difficult transition and require extra interventions.

“In their minds, everything is hard. So school is hard. Plus they’re being thrown into a structured environment, so they need a lot of behavioral support and social skills,” she said.

Does it work?

The National Institutes of Health estimated that every dollar spent on early education generates $4 to $11 in benefits. Yet critics point to other studies of Head Start, which have suggested that gains disappear by third grade, based on standardized test results.

“It’s another one of those things that sounds so good, but I’m not really sure it works,” said Richard Innes, an education analyst for the conservative Bluegrass Institute.

He argues that more focus should be placed on educating parents to cultivate their children at home. Hensley agrees that families need to be more plugged in.

He said JCPS is talking with Metro United Way to get more churches and community organizations to draw more children into preschool and work with private providers to ensure a standardized, quality curriculum.

The more school-ready a child is, the more they learn, and the fewer walls and barriers there are for teachers to break down,” Hensley said.


By Chris Kenning

Source: The Courier-Journal –