Paul Cordeiro | Ensuring Kindergarten Readiness

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There is plenty of good news in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019-20 budget. Besides increased funding for K-12 education, there is funding for 10,000 additional full-day preschool slots and funding for 11,000 additional child care slots. 

Though we are a long way from the stated goal of preschool for all, the funding is a significant step in the right direction. To articulate his plan to support children ages 0-4, Newsom, has put together “a veritable army of advisors specializing in early childhood throughout his administration.” His chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, is a nationally recognized expert on early childhood policy

The new funding is important. Just as important are Gov. Newsom’s efforts to raise awareness of and support for coordinated efforts to improve early childhood programs. Collectively, these programs optimize children’s academic success starting in kindergarten. 

Kindergarten readiness, however, isn’t attained with one to two years of quality preschool, especially for children who live in poverty. Readiness means savvy parental stewardship starting at birth with a focus on developing prereading skills (vocabulary development, “print” awareness), teaching prosocial behaviors, building physical fitness and developing an understanding of how good parenting works hand in hand with schools and other youth-serving entities to help children graduate from high school college/career-ready.

Parents who are good stewards can recite a long list of actions/activities that help their children develop and thrive. These include non-stop language development, early interaction with books, play and social groups, excursions (e.g., to the zoo) that build vocabulary and intellectual curiosity, sports activities, regular physical and dental checkups and school involvement that includes frequent contact with teachers to ensure kindergarten readiness and school success thereafter. 

But many parents are challenged to do all the aforementioned due to lack of awareness and/or life’s realities that make parenting difficult. One big reality is the high cost of housing that forces parents to spend more time working, leaving less time for parenting. As more families are forced to live in stressed housing situations (for example, families that are sharing tiny apartments) the priorities change. Survival becomes the highest priority. In the 10 years I was superintendent of the Carpinteria Unified School District (a district where over 60% of its students are living in poverty), we found that our lowest-achieving students, year-over-year, were living in stressed housing conditions. Not only do these students struggle academically, but also many suffer psychologically from the fear and anxiety that comes with poverty. In response, schools are now hiring counselors and even social workers to help students and their families deal with challenges and focus on school.

In my nine total years (5.5 as assistant superintendent and 3.5 as superintendent) in Newhall, I often noted the high level of parental involvement in our schools and the city’s efforts to maintain and build a family-centered community. Combine those with achievement-minded school districts and the result is award-winning schools. 

Indeed, there is plenty to celebrate here. Santa Clarita’s school districts are among the best in the state. Still, 35% of Santa Clarita’s elementary school students (totaling 8,738 per the latest available data) are living in poverty and, despite districts’ efforts, these students generally sit on the bottom end of a persistent achievement gap. There is much more to be done to eliminate the gap. Schools play a pivotal role but their efforts alone won’t get the job done.

A lot more is needed to empower parents to be excellent educational stewards starting at birth, extending to the time their child enters kindergarten and beyond. This entails coordinated services that involve multiple agencies and the community at large.  

The phrase “resource rich, system poor” comes to mind. We can list the many youth/family-serving organizations in Santa Clarita (resource rich), but are they really coordinating their efforts toward common goals with a common data set that informs their work? Do we know, for example, the percentage of students valley-wide who have demonstrated readiness for kindergarten? Do we even have a common, research-based assessment to gauge readiness? Do we know the percentage of entering kindergartners who have not attended preschool? Do we know the percentage of families who are living in stressed housing conditions? Do we know the percentage of entering kindergartners who are obese (an important indicator of physical health)?

In Carpinteria, thanks to a team effort, we established the Carpinteria Children’s Project (CCP) with the primary goal of demonstrated kindergarten readiness. The program, located at a closed school site, “co-locates” an array of family services (counseling, food bank, Women Infants and Children-WIC, Workforce Development Board, quality infant/toddler care and preschools) that facilitate client access. 

Further, it leads an array of parenting programs that get to good educational stewardship. The CCP uses a research-based tool (the Kindergarten Student Entrance Profile or KSEP) to assess every entering student’s readiness for kindergarten. When first administered in 2009, the KSEP showed 15% of entering kindergartners were ready and 47% “almost ready.” At the time, only about 35% of these students had attended preschool. As of 2019, readiness has risen to 44% and almost ready to 83%. Upwards of 70% of entering kindergartners attended preschool. The CCP is clearly making a difference for children and their families. 

When it comes to serving children, Santa Clarita has the ability to become “system rich” in a coordinated, metrics-driven effort to serve children. It would take leadership and resources to create its version of a Children’s Project. 

Leadership means convening the prospective partners to clarify outcomes, outline a partnership structure, identify funding sources and create a complete implementation/sustainability plan that includes clearly stated goals.

A well-established Santa Clarita Children’s Project provides comprehensive services, acts as the primary interface with school districts and youth/family-serving entities, and annually issues a “report card on children” showing progress toward key benchmarks (e.g., kindergarten readiness all the way up to high school graduation and college/career readiness). Ideally, local nonprofits, the city, county and business community support the effort. 

A national organization, Strive Together Cradle to Career, would be an excellent resource to establish a program and to learn from efforts around the country. As a footnote, interested parties would be well advised to study the work of People’s Self Help Housing, a highly successful Santa Barbara County-based private nonprofit that has helped hundreds of low-income families get out of stressed housing circumstances. Adequate housing means higher academic achievement!

I know Santa Clarita to be a city of dedicated doers, and I believe the doers could coalesce to create a model program for children and their families… a true catalyst for parents/caregivers to ensure a bright future for their kids. 

This means fewer students entering kindergarten not ready. That means fewer school resources that need to spent on “remediation,” which is expensive and sometimes too late. Being ready at the starting line is more cost effective than trying to catch up. 

For communities, it means healthier families. This translates into fewer, high-intervention (i.e, expensive) family crises, lower crime and a community value that emphasizes success for all children. As a community that obsesses on improving life for its families, Santa Clarita is truly ready to take the next step for children. It all starts with folks stepping forward to take the lead.

Paul Cordeiro is former superintendent of the Newhall School District.

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