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School ready?

Maybe not, new report indicates

 Kindergarten teacher Janet Parker leads students to class on opening day last September at Bess Maxwell Elementary. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Kindergarten teacher Janet Parker leads students to class on opening day last September at Bess Maxwell Elementary. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
A recent study of Del Norte’s youngest schoolchildren found that most kindergarten students were not ready to be there.

Of the 281 kindergarteners assessed, only 23 percent were ready to start school, according to “School Readiness in Del Norte County,” a report paid for by First 5 Del Norte.

Another quarter were making progress toward having the skills necessary for the first year of school, but 50 percent were lacking the necessary academic and social-emotional skills.

“There’s a significant number who aren’t prepared for kindergarten,” said Patti Vernelson, the executive director of First 5 Del Norte Children and Families Commission, a local agency focused on the development of children through age 5.

The report lists numerous skills kids should have when they enter kindergarten. Children possessing them will likely succeed later in school, according to the report. If they start without them, they may struggle in the years ahead.

Local officials said focusing more on children’s development in the first five years of life will help them be ready for school. This can be done by educating parents on ways they can help their children’s development and looking for signs of potential problems, officials said.

“Here’s how you can help your child,” Vernelson said.

 

Self-regulation skills

First 5 Del Norte commissioned the “School Readiness” report conducted by Applied Survey Research, a non-profit social research firm, to assess students entering kindergarten in 2011. Additional  assessments are planned for this fall and the next.

All elementary schools in Del Norte except Bess Maxwell School participated in the “School Readiness” report. Kindergarten teachers assessed their students’ abilities and a survey was sent home with parents.

However, only half of parents returned the survey.

Of the students assessed, 65 percent were Caucasian, 62 percent had attended preschool and 58 percent lived in households earning less than $35,000 a year.

Students scored the lowest in “self-regulation” skills — the ability to control their emotions and behave in class. The highest scores were in “self-care and motor skills” — control of their movements and ability to take care of themselves.

Only 23 percent of Del Norte students assessed had both the academic and self-regulation skills for kindergarten, 27 percent had mixed results and 50 had needs in both skills areas, according to the report.

Most kindergartners had good self care and motor skills, meaning they can take care of their basic needs and can control their movements.

Of the kids assessed by their teachers, most recognized basic colors, 72 percent, and shapes, 77 percent, but struggled with other academic skills.

Only 15 percent knew letters, 22 percent recognized rhyming words and 29 could write their name. A number of students were getting close to mastering these skills, but half were only in the beginning stages of learning this basic knowledge.

 

Drilling toward the problem

Vernelson said that using this data, local officials can “drill down” to the key issues affecting children.

The high number of kids not ready for kindergarten is reflective of the community’s biggest issues: poverty, teen pregnancy and child abuse, she said. All those things put children at risk of not being ready for school, she said.

The report found that students whose parents knew how to help develop their children’s skills and engaged in activities to prepare them for school had higher school readiness levels. Children of higher income families tend to do better in school, according to the report.

Del Norte has a high number of children with special needs, Vernelson said.

Of the students assessed, 13 percent had special needs and 7 percent had a suspected special need not yet identified, according to the report.

Throughout Del Norte schools, 15 percent of children have special needs, said district Superintendent  Don Olson, while the state average is 11 percent.

Early intervention for children  lacking certain skills can be effective in getting them on track, Olson said.

The report found more than a fifth of students — 21 percent — have delayed language skills. That’s more than the number of children (13 percent) who are learning English as a second language.

“That’s a huge red flag,” Vernelson said.

Talking and reading to children — even when they’re babies — will help develop their language skills, she said.

Ninety percent of brain development happens from birth to 3 years old, she said.

Parents, guardians and child care centers need to be made aware of the importance of talking and reading to children — to engage their brains, Vernelson said.

“We can do something about that,” she said.

There’s the Reach Out and Read, a national program in which physicians give books to parents as part of a child’s check-up, Vernelson said. Some local physicians are participating.

Parents could use the Ages and Stages questionnaires, a nationally recognized screening system used by preschools and physicians. With the questionnaires, parents can see what skills their  children should have at their age, track their  progress and determine if there’s any problems, Vernelson said.

“Are they meeting the milestones?” she said.


Activities at home

Students with specials needs and those who appeared tired had much lower readiness levels, the report found.

More than 20 percent of children were reported by their teacher to be tired, hungry, sick or absent at least some of the time, if not most, according to the report.

According to parents’ survey results, chores are the most common family activity — almost 80 percent do them at least five days a week.

About 75 percent of parents reported reading with their children at least five days a week and 70 percent said they tell stories and sing most days.

A little more than half of parents said they play sports or exercise with their children most days, 53 percent reported playing games or puzzles and 42 said their do arts and crafts as a family on a regular basis.

Most parents — about three-quarters — had received general or specific information about how to develop children’s skills for kindergarten, parenting and registering for school.

“The community should ensure that families know about and are connected to local resources for meeting basic needs,” the report states. “Families should be provided with information to help children building their readiness skills prior to entering school and should be given opportunities to help their child prepare for the transition to school.”

 

A unified message

The school district recently discovered it has an attendance problem in kindergarten — a significant number of students are chronically absent.

Olson said that the district is battling a culture in Del Norte that places low importance on schooling. The district is trying a slew of things to get kids to school, such as prizes for good attendance and parent education.

The community needs to hear a unified message that kindergarten is important and there are things that parents can do, starting well before the first day of school, to help develop their brains, Vernelson said.

First 5 Del Norte can partner with local agencies and organizations that deal with children and families to get the message out into the community, she said.

There’s the school district,  physicians, Public Health, Social Services, Woman Infants and Children, Child Welfare, the list goes on and on — “that’s your village,” Vernelson said.

“Kids need to be the focus,” she said. “When kids feel they’re encouraged, they have hope.”

Reach Kelley Atherton at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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