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School readiness report supports need for continued work with parents, community

April 21, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Steve Wernick
Steve Wernick

Only 78 percent of Washington County Public Schools kindergartners were fully ready to start school last fall, according to a state report, and the findings have caused concern among school officials, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.

In an effort to address that concern, the school system is partnering with other organizations — such as the Rotary Club of Hagerstown and Washington County Free Library — to co-sponsor a Childhood Literacy Summit on May 3 at Hagerstown Community College, Wilcox said this past week.

Organizers want to let everyone know they have a “stake in the game,” Wilcox said.

The Maryland State Department of Education’s 2011-12 report on school readiness — how well public school kindergartners were prepared to start school this past fall — was released in late March.

The readiness levels ranged from a low of 73 percent in Baltimore City to a high of 97 percent in Caroline County, on the state’s Eastern Shore.

The report shows Washington County has made progress over the years, improving from 58 percent of kindergartners being fully ready in the fall of 2001, but that progress still is needed, said Steve Wernick, the school system’s supervisor of elementary reading, social studies and early learning.

The report gives educators a sense of what background of knowledge kindergartners have when they start their first full year of public schooling, Wernick said.

During the past decade, a broader communication network was established to help parents and community members learn what students are expected to know before entering kindergarten, Wernick said. In addition to websites with such information, school system officials also educate parents at school events such as the kindergarten screening fairs each summer, Wernick said.

The latest results of the school readiness report, Wernick said, are “really letting me know that we need to continue to work with parents and the community so they know what a child is expected to know when they enter kindergarten.”

In addition to being a partner in the Childhood Literacy Summit, Wilcox said, at some point the school system might partner with Meritus Medical Center to make sure families with newborns get books to encourage parents to begin reading to their children.

Another possibility would be the school system partnering with entertainer Dolly Parton’s foundation, which helps supply books to children, Wilcox said.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library partners with communities to supply preschool children and their families with age-appropriate books for their homes, according to ImaginationLibrary.com.



Ready or not

Per the state report, students are at “full readiness” if they “consistently demonstrate skills, behaviors, and abilities which are needed to meet kindergarten expectations successfully.”

Of Washington County’s 1,656 kindergartners last fall, 78 percent, or 1,289 children, were deemed to be fully ready to start school, according to the latest state report. That compares to 76 percent, or 1,226 kindergartners, who were fully ready in the fall of 2010 and 58 percent who were fully ready in the fall of 2001, according to state reports. Student numbers for the fall 2001 report were not available.

Of the 1,656 kindergartners last fall, 19 percent, or 319 children, were deemed to be “approaching readiness.” That compared to 20 percent, or 323 students, in the fall of 2010, and 34 percent in the fall of 2001.

Students who are approaching readiness “inconsistently demonstrate skills, behaviors, and abilities which are needed to meet kindergarten expectations successfully and require targeted instructional support in specific domains or specific performance indicators.”

Students who are developing readiness “do not demonstrate skills, behaviors, and abilities, which are needed to meet kindergarten expectations successfully and require considerable instructional support in several domains or many performance indicators.”

Of the 1,656 kindergartners last fall, 3 percent, or 48 children, were deemed to be “developing readiness.” That compares to 4 percent, or 65 children, in the fall of 2010, and 9 percent of kindergartners in the fall of 2001.

The school system’s prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers, who receive training from a state official on how to evaluate their students for this report, conduct the portfolio-based evaluations during the first six to eight weeks of the school year, Wernick said.

Teachers have a list of criteria to look for as they observe students and provide examples of how a student is doing as part of that evaluation, Wernick said. Those observations include more than just how students are doing in class, he said.

Examples might be when a child took a leaf to class and noted its color had changed because autumn was arriving, a sign the child has an understanding of science and observation. Another example might be when a child knows his or her family has two dogs because it has one brown dog and one black dog, which adds up to two, Wernick said.


Prekindergarten

Before starting kindergarten, students might have been in prekindergarten, Head Start, a nonpublic nursery program, a child-care center or family child care, according to the state report. The children might not have been in any of those programs and instead been cared for at home or by a relative or other caregiver, the report states.

According to the most recent state report, which is based on kindergartners in the Washington County public school system last fall, 569 had been in pre-K; 419 were cared for at home or were cared for informally by a relative or caregiver; 219 had been in a child-care center; 147 had been in a nonpublic nursery; 168 had been in Head Start; and 130 had been in family child care. Those statistics reflect children who were exclusively in one of those early childhood programs, the report states.

Washington County Public Schools’ history with prekindergarten began in the late 1960s with a summer Head Start program, which started as part of the Johnson administration’s war on poverty, according to Jill Burkhart, director for elementary education. The Head Start program evolved into a school-year program in the early 1970s, when more funding sources were available, she said.

Around the late 1990s, the Head Start program became a separate entity from the school system, though the school system continued to have its own half-day pre-K program, Burkhart said. Like Head Start, it was aimed at children from low-income families and did not, and still does not, include every county child that age, school system officials said.

In recent years, the school system’s pre-K program has had about 520 to 540 students with an increasing number of them from low-income families, Wernick said. The school system must first accommodate any applicants that are age- and income-eligible before accepting other age-eligible children, Wernick said. If openings occur during the year, the pre-K program will accept new students, giving priority to income-eligible students, he said. Even if there aren’t openings, the school system will accept income-eligible children into the program during the school year, he said.

The school system’s pre-K program is a half-day program, though full-day pre-K is offered for eligible Winter Street and Bester elementary students through the Judy Center program, which also offers classes for parents about parenting and health services, school system officials said. The Bester program is currently housed at Funkstown School for Early Childhood Education. Winter Street and Bester were chosen for the full-day program because when it started about eight years ago, those schools had the highest poverty rates, Wernick said.

Wernick said school system officials need to continue to get the word out to families with age- and income-eligible children to apply to the free pre-K program.

Pre-K teachers conduct the same observations as kindergarten teachers, regarding readiness, but the countywide data for pre-K is not available, Wernick said. That data is monitored on a class level to see where students need extra support, Wernick said.

As for children who are not enrolled in pre-K, Wernick said he goes to some private family child centers and child-care centers to make sure providers understand the school system’s expectations for children entering kindergarten. Some providers learn about those expectations at Judy Center locations. Also, because child-care centers are state-licensed, they get information about expectations from state education officials, school system officials said.


Comparing school systems

Last September, Rotary Club of Hagerstown’s board of directors created a task force of Rotary and community leaders to try to increase the number of students entering school ready to learn and to decrease the number of elementary students experiencing summer learning loss, Rotary Club of Hagerstown President David Hanlin told Board of Education members Tuesday. Literacy is a major area of focus for Rotary clubs, he said.

On average, a child will lose one month’s learning during summer vacation, Hanlin told board members as he promoted the upcoming literacy summit.

Regarding school readiness, students in every local school system in Maryland — other than those in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County — were better prepared to learn than Washington County’s kindergartners, Hanlin said.

Washington County was tied with Cecil County for the third-lowest ranking, when it came to the percentage of kindergartners who were ready to start school, according to state report data sorted by The Herald-Mail.

Burkhart said the county data can’t really be compared to other counties because there are different socio-economic conditions, mobility rates and other factors. Different factors affect the school readiness information positively or negatively, she said.

The fact that Washington County is making progress is a good sign, Burkhart and Wernick said.

Rankings by percentage also are influenced by the size of a school system’s kindergarten population.

The top-ranked school system when it comes to the percentage of kindergartners fully ready for school was Caroline County, which had 97 percent, or 430 out of 444 kindergartners fully ready.

Charles County, the public school system with the kindergarten class closest in size to Washington County, ranked 11th with 83 percent, or 1,342 of its 1,623 kindergartners fully ready, according to the state report.

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