School ready?

Kelley Atherton, The Triplicate

Maybe not, new report indicates

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 katherton@triplicate.com .

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