Recent headlines screamed: “only half of Kentucky’s children are prepared for kindergarten.”
The number is even worse in Mason County. A recent report shows only 48.7 percent of Mason County students are prepared.
So, now what?
What will it take to ensure our children are prepared for kindergarten, ready to learn?
Through public/private partnerships in the state of Kentucky, I believe we’ve found a way to give young children a stronger foundation, to get them ready for school, before they even enter kindergarten. We think a big part of the solution is United Way Born Learning Academies.
These academies – free to families – teach parents and caregivers of children from prenatal to 5 years of age how to turn everyday moments into learning opportunities through a series of six monthly workshops. In other words, as one parent participant and mother of two said: “It’s not about going to buy this book or getting this toy. It’s understanding there are learning opportunities with what your child is already doing -- like talking about patterns by having my daughter choose striped pants or polka-dot pants. It’s creating moments out of what’s already there ... It’s about not letting these opportunities pass you by.”
The academies were created through a unique partnership that includes Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, United Way of Northern Kentucky Success by Six, United Way of Kentucky and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. To date, Toyota’s $1 million investment through 2016 has resulted in Born Learning Academies operating in 33 elementary schools in the state — nearly halfway to their goal of 70 schools.
Our initial hope that this program would be emulated, duplicated, copied by others who see early childhood education as the important launching pad for a successful school experience is happening. Recently, Gov. Steve Beshear announced a nearly $1 million federal Race to the Top grant that will build upon the program’s success and be patterned after the United Way/Toyota model. The Governor’s Office of Early Childhood and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, both early supporters, now play an important role, along with the Division of Family Resource and Youth Services Centers, in expanding Born Learning Academies to 220 total schools over the next four years.
Helping us to get there are the “headlines” themselves. We have been waiting to find out just where we stand in regard to “kindergarten readiness.” Now, by way of the Kentucky Department of Education’s state findings we have a baseline — just half of students are prepared. Game on!
Speaking of data gathering, we do have strong indicators of success of the United Way Born Learning program. The first-ever Academy, held at Beechgrove Elementary in Independence, Ky., in 2010, found 92 percent of the students whose families attended at least one Born Learning Academy in the past four years received recognition for Proficient, Distinguished or Growth on their Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress assessment. This assessment measures skill level in various subjects (dependent on grade level) beginning in third grade. These 24 students (original Born Learning Academy participants) are now in third, fourth or fifth grade.
Now, I’m not saying that Born Learning is the sole reason these students hit these skill levels – many other factors are involved. However, as explained by the Family Research Council, “children with active, involved parents who help with their schooling will achieve the most success long-term.”
And, that is what the United Way Born Learning Academies are all about – focusing on parental involvement by engaging parents in hands-on workshops that teach them specific activities they can do with their children, allow them to try them out as a group, then, take them home to enjoy extended learning as a family. It may be as simple as taking a spaghetti strainer and testing different materials. What happens when we pour in flour? What about water? Do you want to pour some peas in here to see what happens? What do you think will occur? The child is using scientific inquiry and the caregiver can incorporate measurement, estimation and other math concepts.
Why is this important?
Studies show that 90 percent of a child’s brain development has occurred by age 5; also, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school than those who read at a proficient level.”
Unfortunately, preschool programs where a child hones in on many of these skills are not an equal-opportunity educator. Private preschool programs cost money; and, many parents cannot afford to send their child. That’s why it’s so important for parents to know what they can do at home, at no cost, to help set their children up for success. And so it goes ...
More reason for employers like Toyota to get involved in this crucial shortcoming. More reason for additional non-profit organizations like United Way of Kentucky to jump on board and combat our lack of early childhood education. And, more reason for the Commonwealth to find more funding sources to provide programs that will lift our state — as it did with the Race to the Top funding.
If we prepare our children now, at a young age, we will raise successful students who become tomorrow’s equipped and competitive workforce. We can, and we must, turn the statistics around by creating a stronger learning environment for Kentucky’s children. We must partner with parents and caregivers and work as a community to foster early childhood development and help grow Kentucky’s future leaders.
It is not a numbers game. It is one child, one family at a time.
Helen Carroll is interim president of the United Way of Kentucky. She is also a board member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.