Gwinnett to seek community’s help teaching kids before kindergarten

Leah Shivers isn’t employed by the Gwinnett County school system, but district officials say people like her are doing critical work for its future.

Gwinnett plans to work more closely with parents, pediatricians and early care centers to do something education experts and even politicians agree is badly needed: make sure children are ready for kindergarten, to boost their chance of success later as adults.

Shivers, a teacher at The Sunshine House, an early learning center with many locations in Gwinnett, was preparing a class of about 20 four- and five-year-olds last week for life in kindergarten.

“Should you be touching things as you walk by (in the hallways)?,” Shivers asked the children.

“Noooooo,” they respond.

Why?

“You’re going to get in trouble!” several kids said.

Many youngsters do run into trouble when they get to kindergarten but aren’t prepared for it academically. That worries Gwinnett administrators as Georgia’s largest school district continues to grow by about 4,000 students a year. Gwinnett had 12,540 kindergarten students this year. It offers a handful of pre-k classes.

Gwinnett officials, federal education leaders and President Barack Obama point to data showing that early childhood education produces students who do better in kindergarten and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Some parents cannot afford day care — the waiting list for Georgia’s free pre-kindergarten program is in the thousands — which education experts is why school districts need to be more involved in early education.

“If school systems want to maximize their investment in K-12 education, they’ll start earlier,” said Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, a nonprofit group. Binderman, state early learning officials and others are excited about Gwinnett’s interest and curious to know what it has in mind.

Getting school districts to do more

To date, few Georgia school districts have tried to include nonschool, community resources in the early-education effort. Reasons most districts have not started structured early childhood education include lack of space for classes and reluctance to provide transportation for children.

TheAtlanta-based Zeist Foundation is working with the Clarke County district and Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School cluster on early-education efforts that are similar to what Gwinnett has in mind. Atlanta hopes eventually to create a districtwide early childhood program that will reach students through the third grade.

“Those are the years where you have the greatest opportunity to catch up,” said Courtney Jones, Atlanta’s early learning director.

Gwinnett is hoping to have its plan in place in the next year or two. Most of its work now is research on what works. Gwinnett is looking at the Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards, organized by the state’s Department of Early Childhood and Learning, as a benchmark for student proficiency. GELDS, as it’s called by educators, looks for children to be able to write some letters of the alphabet and take toys apart and attempt to reassemble them by the age of 5, which is when they can enroll in kindergarten.

“The more ready children are to start kindergarten, then the faster we can move to make sure they’re on the trajectory we’re working on,” said Steve Flynt, Gwinnett’s chief academic officer.

Flynt said he does not believe the early education effort will cost Gwinnett much money. In December 2013, federal officials awarded Georgia nearly $52 million through a four-year grant to improve the state’s early childhood education system. Flynt said Gwinnett will look at the state grant and see if it will apply for any funds that fit with the district’s goals.

Is it effective?

The Sunshine House in Lilburn, like many centers, has a waiting list. Its five pre-k classes are lottery funded and filled with 110 students. The noise rivals a Falcons game.

In one classroom, a girl is learning the alphabet on a desktop computer. At another table, a boy shows off an Army truck he made with a set of shape connectors. A girl made a choo-choo train. It’s all part of encouraging the children to think critically while having fun.

Early education is a popular initiative for the Obama administration. The president visited a Decatur early care center in 2013 to highlight the need for high-quality early childhood education.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address, a few days before his visit to Decatur.

The fact-checking website PolitiFact, which includes a team of reporters and editors at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, rated Obama’s claim Half-True, saying it’s difficult to determine the long-term effectiveness of such programs because there are so many factors involved in a child’s development.

Gwinnett parent Ju-Ton Gatewood, 39, is convinced of the merits of early education. His daughter, Gabriella, 4, and son, Daniel, 2, attend the Sunshine House in Lilburn. Daniel is more advanced than other two-year-olds who don’t attend day care, his father said.

“The development of those kids and the development of kids in day care is very, very different,” Gatewood said.

Alaina Khan, the center’s director, remembers when Gwinnett sent kindergarten teachers to meet their future students. She hopes Gwinnett will renew that practice. Gwinnett, she said, should also consider starting a committee of kindergarten and pre-k teachers to discuss kindergarten readiness.

“They’re all our children,” Khan said. “We just get them first.”

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