Schools, others focus on preparing tots for kindergarten

Chris Stanford, Instructor for Gwinnett County Public School's Play 2 Learn preschool program, explains the importance of getting parents involved in their toddlers early learning development. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Gwinnett finds most begin unprepared, but pre-K classes aren’t the only way to address the challenge

Fewer than half of Gwinnett County Public School students enter kindergarten with the skills they need to begin learning in a formal school setting, the district has found.

Statewide, it’s impossible to know how many children are in that category. Although benefits of teaching children early are almost universally acknowledged, and Georgia has been regarded as a nationwide leader in early education, school districts aren’t required to make that assessment.

“There shouldn’t be any stronger priority than education,” said State Rep. Donna McLeod, D-Lawrenceville, who has advocated putting the state lottery-funded pre-K program in every Gwinnett public school. “Look at the amount of money allocated for it. In 2015 the state gave a 21% increase in education, but we’re not seeing the return on investment.”

The academic success of students in later years depends heavily upon their kindergarten readiness. During this period, children develop primary skills that form the foundations of reading, counting, and social interaction. A child who falls behind in the early learning stages is less likely to catch up and may eventually drop out of school.

But Gwinnett also found getting kids ready for school doesn’t necessarily mean pre-kindergarten classes in every school.

In 2015, it began its Kindergarten Readiness Entry Profile (KREP) because, “Our elementary schools were seeing a number of children coming to kindergarten without the necessary foundational skills,” said Kim Holland, the district’s director of early learning and school readiness.

One way Gwinnett is addressing the need is a program called Play 2 Learn. It started as a pilot program in the 2016 - 2017 school year in three schools and is being expanded to all Title I elementary schools, which have a high proportion of students from low-income families, “due to its success and parental support,” said Holland.

The idea is, “Parents are the child’s first teacher and we want to make sure they know what students need before they become students,” she said.

“We focus on providing parents with the tools to be the first and best teacher for their children,” said Play 2 Learn instructor Chris Stanford. “They are here one day for just 90 minutes, but the learning extends through the week.”

Parents are given a monthly calendar of suggested activities. For example, Jan. 24: “Look around the room for shapes. Find things the shape of a circle, square or triangle.”

Universal pre-K unlikely

Wandy Taylor, a former Gwinnett County Public Schools educator and a former school board candidate, said, “The children need a program to prepare them for school, to nurture them and build a foundation for new skill sets.”

Taylor said,“When I was a principal at Lilburn Elementary I begged to have pre-K in my school.”

Officials at the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), the state agency in charge of education for children up to 5, agree that early intervention is needed, but they’re not sure across-the-board pre-K classes are the answer.

“Right now the lottery-funded pre-K program serves 60% of 4-year-olds in the state, which as of Sept. 1 was about 80,000 children,” said Susan Adams, deputy commissioner of pre-K and instructional supports for DECAL. “There’s a wait list for another 4,800, but there are not enough facilities.”

Last year’s budget was $379 million.

About half of the pre-K programs are in public schools, and the rest are in private day care facilities. Every county in the state takes advantage of the program except for Paulding, which has no state-funded pre-K classes. Most public school systems offer the lottery-funded pre-K programs. Marietta City Schools has one, and Gwinnett County has two at Maxwell High.

In Gwinnett, many pre-K programs have vacancies — about 400 slots countywide.

“It could be an issue with transportation or cultural preferences or parental desire to keep the child at home one more year,” said Adams. “But it wouldn’t be feasible to offer more pre-K classes in Gwinnett unless we see a demand.”

She said 58% of age-eligible children in Gwinnett are served by some program before they start school. She estimated that 75% would be the most Gwinnett could serve. Fulton and DeKalb have the highest demand for pre-K — about 95% of eligible children — but also have the most facilities. Their wait lists have anywhere from 200 to 500 kids.

Adams added that Gwinnett has other programs to get children ready for kindergarten, such as Head Start, Babies Can’t Wait, an early intervention program through Easterseals and the Play 2 Learn initiative.

Although Easterseals of North Georgia’s main office is located in Gwinnett, it serves 44 counties in the state. It has a strong emphasis on early childhood intervention. “Our programs are mainly for children living in poverty,” said Donna Davidson, president and CEO of Easterseals of North Georgia. “We blend funding so they get everything they need — early education, medical, dental.”

It’s difficult for school systems to track children so they rely on state agencies and social services providers to help them help the kids before they enroll in school. That’s why Gwinnett began Play 2 Learn as an alternative to programs that mainly aided special-needs children and those in extreme poverty. School officials see this as a way to level the playing field for more incoming kindergartners.

The AJC recently visited a Play 2 Learn class at Winn Holt Elementary in Lawrenceville. There, children as young as a year old were introduced to skills needed to become kindergartners.

Stanford had the little ones line up and proceed quietly to the classroom. Once inside, everyone found a spot on the rug and snuggled up to parents for storytime. Even though several parents had limited English proficiency, there were books in Spanish, and many that had no words at all. There’s also a parent liaison who speaks fluent Spanish and was able to translate when necessary.

“The home component isn’t difficult or time-consuming,” said Stanford, “It’s productive play. Lessons can be centered around going to the grocery story, counting stars, using things in their environment to make conversation.”

Ronald Ulceus said his children are proof it works.

It’s more convenient for his mother-in-law to keep the little ones, so they aren’t exposed to a lot of other children or a preschool environment during the week. But his family signed on to the Play 2 Learn model when it began, and said he can see the results.

“My oldest, Benjamin is in first grade and he had no problems with the transition,” said Ulceus. “He began with the first program.”

He added that starting earlier has given 5-year-old Abraham, who is now in pre-K, and 3-year-old Grace a leg up. He plans to enroll Grace in the state-funded pre-K next year. And one-year-old Faith comes to the weekly class, too.

“We don’t have a lot of the toys at home that are here so this is a special time,” he said. “We try to make it work with our schedules and supplement the weekly class with trips to the library and the park.”

With the program so new, there isn’t conclusive data on its effectiveness.

“I can say anecdotally that it’s working. Parents have told me that it takes the fear out the learning process and children are comfortable when they start school,” said Holland. “If you take a child from the first few weeks and look at them just a month later, often you’ll see someone who’s on the road to learning. And starting the journey early makes for a much smoother ride.”

Number of children entering kindergarten unprepared

52% of GCPS students enter kindergarten unprepared

15% of GCPS students in most ‘ready’ community enter kindergarten unprepared

82% of GCPS students in least ‘ready’ community enter kindergarten unprepared

42 GCPS elementary schools have half or fewer of student entering kindergarten unprepared

Source: Gwinnett County Public Schools Kindergarten Readiness Entry Profile

The cost of pre-K education

$74,000 — Average cost to run a pre-k class including salaries for teacher and assistant, benefits for both and operating funds

$42,000 — Base pay for pre-k teachers. That rate goes up with experience.

$4,369 — Average per pupil allotment for pre-k students

Source: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

Georgia has specific measurements to show that children are on track to be ready to start kindergarten. Some examples:

Birth to one year — Children should participate in their own feeding, respond to what they hear and see, control their head and back, make facial expressions and sounds, show curiosity/interest in surroundings, manipulate objects and imitate actions observed, respond to the names of familiar people and objects and hold a simple writing tool with adult help and supervision.

12 to 24 months — Participates in a physical activity for three to five minutes, says their name, tries a variety of approaches to get what they want, uses one-to-two word phrases to communicate and interacts with plants and animals.

24 to 36 months — Eats a variety of foods, self soothes independently, repeats successful actions and experiences, demonstrates an expanding vocabulary, demonstrates controlled scribbling, listens and shows interest when an adult tells a story with props.

36 to 48 months — Communicates to peers and adults when dangerous situations are observed, recognizes self as a unique individual, makes choices and completes some independent activities, shows emerging awareness of writing, recognizes basic two-dimensional shapes.

48 to 60 months — Listens to conversation and demonstrates comprehension, recognizes numerals and uses counting as part of play, describes materials and their physical properties.

Source: Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards