Every Child Can Start School Kindergarten-Ready
Children begin learning the moment they’re born, offering educators the opportunity to ensure achievement gaps never emerge.
By Dr. Kandace Bethea
Children begin learning at birth, which offers both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity lies in our ability to begin setting them up for academic success immediately. And many families do just this, by talking to them, reading to them, and otherwise exposing them to a literature-rich environment from day one.
The challenge lies in the fact that the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers also begins to grow from day one. Children growing up in poverty tend to be exposed to less literature and a more limited vocabulary—and sometimes even less conversation in their early lives. And, in fact, we can see evidence of the achievement gap as early as kindergarten.
But what would happen if there were no achievement gap when kids entered kindergarten? What if every student started school kindergarten ready and on an even playing field?
For one thing, the future would be much brighter for a lot of students. A recent meta-analysis found that students who participated in a high-quality early childhood education program were more likely to graduate on time, less likely to be placed in special education, and less likely to be retained to repeat a grade—all of which benefits students and reduces long-term costs for school districts.
In my district, Marion County School District, we believe in doing everything we can to ensure every student begins school kindergarten-ready. In an economically distressed county, it is no easy task, but with committed partners and focused determination, we’re off to a great start.
Bring Them to School Early
Helping children in our district get prepared for kindergarten is much easier these days thanks to the South Carolina Child Early Reading and Development Program (CERDEP). Offered in most school districts in our state, CERDEP is available to eligible four-year-olds for free and is designed to help them develop the foundational skills required to begin school.
We are also fortunate to have a South Carolina First Steps 4K program partnership, which provides resources, such as free books for home use, to students in our Academy of Early Learning.
We would love to see every four-year-old in our community take part in CERDEP, but funding is limited and does not cover as many seats as there are children to fill them. We try to cover as many additional seats as we can, but each one comes directly out of our budget and we simply don’t have the funds to ensure access to this program for every student who needs early learning.
Bring Early Learning to Them
To help prepare our students for kindergarten, we depend on partnerships, and any educator can tell you that the most powerful partners for early learning are students’ parents and caregivers. By educating parents and offering them the resources they need to support their child’s growth, we empower them to become their child’s first teacher.
A shared commitment to that vision is one reason our partnership with Waterford UPSTART, a nonprofit focused on early education, has been so beneficial. Their program makes it easy for parents to be involved and engaged in their child’s education by providing tools like adaptive software that delivers reading, math, and science curriculum in 15-20-minute chunks, five days a week.
The organization provides a family education liaison (FEL) who explains the program to parents and keeps in regular contact, showing families how they can continue teaching their children offline. With these tools, parents feel empowered. Families are also provided a computer and internet access, if needed, at no cost.
To kick the program off in Marion County, we begin with an event where parents learn how to log in, monitor their child’s progress, and engage with them about what they’re learning. In addition to helping ensure student success, these launch events help connect the home-based learning to the school environment because we hold them at our early learning center.
The students in our district who have completed the program have begun school at an intermediate kindergarten level, on average.
Learning doesn’t just happen during the school day, but throughout every moment of a child’s life. Of course, as educators, we can’t be there during those out-of-school moments, but with partnerships like this one, we can help parents provide important early-learning experiences in the home.