Nan Austin

Stanislaus project finds many children not ready for kindergarten

Matthew Whitehead, 4, plays with dough in the Head Start program at Martone Elementary School in Modesto on March 3, 2015.
Matthew Whitehead, 4, plays with dough in the Head Start program at Martone Elementary School in Modesto on March 3, 2015.

This week is the Week of the Young Child (April 10-16), celebrating the youngest learners, those ever-so-curious, ever-so-busy explorers of everything. Their straight-arrow questions challenge us all to be more honest. Their ready smiles and spontaneous giggles warm the heart, even when the hands are deep in the mess of the latest misfire.

Family events are planned nationwide this week, including on Saturday at the Modesto Junior College West Campus in Modesto and Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp. Both are free events with lots of activities and resources for young families.

But even as we cheer on the fun and revel in the memories, this is also a good week to face the fact that the earliest years deserve a higher priority than we as a society give them.

We know this because in mid-August, when about 8,850 Stanislaus County children head to their first day of kindergarten, 70 percent of them will not be ready.

This dismaying statistic comes from an actual count at five schools by Stanislaus Reads, a collaboration of the Stanislaus Community Foundation with the Stanislaus County Library, Office of Education and Children & Families Commission. The group’s goal is to raise the number of children reading at grade level by third grade, a key indicator for high school graduation.

Measuring the academic skills of every fresh face entering kindergarten, teachers at those five schools found 7 out of 10 lacked key skills and basic vocabulary kids their age typically have.

To put that in context, at age 5, when 90 percent of a human’s brain development is done, many of these children are getting their first exposure to full sentences; words printed on a page; counting out loud; and consistent, enforced expectations for behavior.

How can anybody flunk kindergarten? Well, walking in already behind is a good start.

Now, add in a disorganized home life that makes getting to school every day, on time, a struggle – hey, it’s only kindergarten, right? – and their chances of being up-to-par readers and writers by third grade slide further.

As of last year’s state testing, 71 percent of third-graders in Stanislaus County did not read at grade level. The striking similarity in percentage starting behind in kindergarten and finishing behind in third does not mean no kid ever catches up, but it surely points to the difficulty.

Kindergarten for me came with milk and cookies, and a nap after recess. For my kids, it was a week for each letter, including one Wednesday when everyone got toasted waffles with walnuts and whipped cream.

Today, kindergartners review the alphabet and quickly move on to reading short words.

The vast majority of the 7 out of 10 children who started behind will move on up, walking into first grade still behind. If they spent the summer reading nothing – even further behind.

But failure is not written in the stars. Any caretaker, speaking any language, can give a child a brighter future, and it all starts with having fun.

What kids in the cellphone era are missing out on, those who study school readiness say, is face-to-face interaction with caring adults. Play time. Patty-cake time. Counting the board game spaces time. Being read to. Being sung to. Being laughed with and listened to.

Interaction is what builds everything from social skills to vocabulary, says First 5 California, a state website loaded with information and links for parents and care providers – the first teachers.

An American Enterprise Institute report released Wednesday argues against expanding preschool, taking issue with its cost and existing research showing its effectiveness.

“What America’s most disadvantaged children are facing is not an achievement gap; it’s a life gap. To close that gap, we need to move beyond a narrow focus on improving academic skills as the aim and expanding pre-K as the solution. Researchers, policymakers, and the public alike must remain focused on the core goal: to give all children, no matter the circumstances of their birth, a fair start in life,” the report’s summary says.

In arguing against spending on preschool, the report raises the larger issues of social divides and economic inequality. Common sense says these contribute mightily to the achievement gap. But until Utopia arrives, giving kids a boost before they start kindergarten seems a sensible start.

Principal Steve Kuykendall says he can walk into a kindergarten class and spot the kids who went to pre-K classes. His school, Moon Primary School in Waterford, pioneered transitional kindergarten and tracked its effectiveness for low-income kids. Kuykendall and other local educators are believers, and I believe them.

Transitional kindergarten is a pre-kindergarten school year that works as a bridge between preschool play and today’s academic kindergarten. A California compromise, it is only available to those who turn 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, the kids no longer able to go straight into kindergarten.

Expanding the play-based transition year to include all kids would cost a lot ($1.5 billion for the state). But that is still less than efforts to catch kids up in later grades is costing taxpayers now. State funding kicks in when the child turns 5, and some California school districts are picking up the tab until then.

Only a little over one-third of Stanislaus youngsters go to any kind of preschool. Preschool covers basic skills, but along the way kids also get used to structured group life – the notions of walking in line, sharing a toy and waiting their turn. It also gives young parents a network of fellow families and a place to get information about services and good finds.

Other ways to help catch kids up are steady attendance, which may mean expanding school busing, and summer learning programs.

Offering summer camps and classes, expanding school busing and offering transitional kindergarten classes are things parents can advocate for under the Local Control Accountability Plans. Plans for 2016-17 are coming up for approval, then begin another cycle of gathering input over the summer.

This week might be a good time to start on a better tomorrow, by playing games and reading stories with your favorite young learners.

Modesto festival

What: Week of the Young Child Family Fun Festival

When: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Modesto Junior College West Campus, 2201 Bluegum Ave., Modesto.

Info: Free event includes booths of dozens of organizations providing free crafts, games and information for area families to enjoy with their children. The Stanislaus Association for the Education of Young Children celebration is co-sponsored with the child development departments of Modesto Junior College and California State University.

Angels Camp fair

What: Week of the Young Child Children’s Fair

When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bret Harte High School, 364 Murphys Grade Road, Angels Camp

Info: Free event is sponsored by Calaveras County groups and businesses. There will be a display of young children’s art, a petting zoo, firetruck, car-seat checks, a kids’ farmers market, activities, crafts and free lunch. For more, call 209-754-1065.