WESTLEY -- As Veronica Zarate patiently helped her daughter's small fingers string Froot Loops cereal onto a piece of twine, she knew it wasn't just a game.
Zarate, a preschool teacher in her native Mexico, said this activity would one day help 2-year-old Sinai learn to tie her shoes. Even Sinai's afternoon snack, a cup of raisins, would make her fingers strong enough to hold a pencil by kindergarten.
Zarate is one of 18 parents and their children who gather monthly at Grayson Charter School to talk about how to be their child's first teacher.
"I've learned to share more with my children," said Guadalupe Castellanos, who attended with 2-year-old daughter Karely. "I find myself being more patient."
Researchers from the California State University, Stanislaus, psychology and child development departments spent four years studying 2,500 children from Stanislaus County pre-kindergarten programs, using surveys, literacy tests and teacher observations to gauge their progress. Their research, which began in 2003, showed programs that involve parents and their children learning together -- such as the one at Grayson Charter -- are among the most effective in getting children ready for kindergarten and teaching them social skills, such as sharing and working with others.
The report, released this month, studied School Readiness programs in some of the area's lowest-performing elementary schools. It's the first long-term study in the state of School Readiness programs, which began after voters approved a 50-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes in 1998 to fund early education.
The county Children and Families Commission monitors the programs, for children younger than 6 years old, and offers free book giveaways, pre-kindergarten transition camps, literacy activities, health screenings and parent-child classes.
"Some kids have never used a toothbrush or held a pencil before they get to kindergarten," said Jamie McCreary, one of the study's lead researchers. "It's a challenge to get these kids ready."
Among the study's other findings:
- The percent of children enrolled in School Readiness programs who were prepared for kindergarten increased at least 20 percent from 2003 to 2007.
School Readiness programs have helped serve the children of the working poor, those who earn just enough not to qualify for federally funded Head Start programs, School Readiness Coordinator Luis Molina said.
Sylvia Ochoa, who helped lead a session Tuesday at Grayson Charter, showed parents a video that said their children will learn two-thirds of their vocabulary before they set foot in a preschool classroom.
One Waterford father, who drives a truck as many as six days a week, was told he could help by tape-recording himself reading and leaving the tape at home for his children while he was on the road.
"A lot of them say, 'I don't have a degree, I didn't go to school, what do I know?' " Ochoa said. "It's very empowering for them."
Enrichment not paying off?
Still, the study was not all good news. It found some programs, such as kindergarten enrichment programs, showed no evidence of a positive impact.
Kindergarten enrichment, which gives extra help to kindergartners throughout the year during regular class days or full-day classes, was found overall to be negligible in helping those students do better in school.
"It's not showing an effect that is large enough to warrant the investment so far," McCreary said.
McCreary said school districts use different curriculum and teaching methods for their kindergarten enrichment programs, so she plans to study each program to see whether there is a "hotshot" one among them.
Researchers also found that English-learning children, unlike native English speakers, did not seem to benefit from attending preschool.
McCreary believes one solution may be creating more dual-immersion language programs and start them in a child's preschool years.
Children in dual-immersion programs learn in Spanish and English, with the goal of becoming bilingual.
Belle Jarrett, who collected data for the School Readiness study, also looked at English-learners in Patterson's dual-immersion programs. She found English-learners enrolled in those programs from kindergarten through third grade out-performed English-learners in English-only classes. Jarrett tested the children in English, on skills such as reading ability and comprehension.
"Those children who began and stayed in dual-immersion are establishing the skills they need to be successful and literate at a higher rate than those who are in English-only classes," Jarrett said.
Molina said the Stanislaus County Children and Families Commission will continue to target families whose children haven't been to preschool and help parents teach their children when their minds are developing the quickest, during their first three years.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.