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Thursday, April 12, 2012 01:30 pm

Getting kids ready for kindergarten

Continuum of Learning supports pre-k screening

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The beginning stages of a plan to improve education in Sangamon County are already showing promise, according to an upcoming report from the Sangamon County Continuum of Learning.

The Continuum is working to implement pre-kindergarten screening county-wide, along with a handful of other projects aimed at preparing children for school. It’s just the first step of the Continuum’s multifaceted, long-term plan.

“Our hope is that we would be able to increase the proportion of children who are indeed ready for kindergarten, so that when they get to kindergarten, they’re not in a situation of having to catch up,” says Dr. Harry Berman, chairman of the Continuum’s steering committee. “That would be such a shame. It’s a painful thing to think about, and yet it’s a reality for many children.”

The Continuum – a collaboration between the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and the United Way of Central Illinois – expects to release its 2011 annual report during a roundtable discussion and awards banquet held at 5 p.m. April 19 at the Illinois Education Association. An advance copy of the report was provided to Illinois Times by the Continuum.

The report shows the results of pre-kindergarten screening at several early education centers in Sangamon County. Roughly one out of five children tested exhibit a lag in academic development and, roughly one out of three children tested exhibit a lag in communication and motor skills. In total, 52 percent of children tested showed a development lag in one or more areas. It’s difficult to apply the results to the greater student population county-wide, however, because three of the pre-kindergarten centers tested accept only students with mental, social or emotional problems, which negatively skews the results.

Stacy Reed, program director for the Continuum, says pre-kindergarten screening allows schools to identify areas of teaching curriculum that need improvement and individual children who need specific help.

Berman says the testing also helps parents understand areas in which their children may struggle so the parents can coordinate with teachers to address developmental lags.

“It’s been hugely beneficial,” Berman says. “It creates an occasion for teachers to sit with parents and actually talk.”
The Continuum pays for the tests through local fundraising and a grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation, while 14 public and private preschools in Sangamon County conduct the screenings using a standardized test known as the Brigance Early Childhood Assessment Kit. In 2012, the Continuum expects to test about 1,500 children ages 3 through 5. The Continuum hopes to eventually implement screenings in all 10 school districts in Sangamon County, along with offering screenings to any pre-kindergarten child in the county.

The Continuum also partnered with several other groups to create a mental health program for children in high-risk neighborhoods. The program is paid for by a grant from the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation – one of only four such grants awarded statewide. It’s intended to “weave together an array of mental health services and support systems that often operate in isolation to better meet the social and emotional health needs of local children and families,” the report says.

Also highlighted is a plan to develop partnerships between schools and local businesses in which the businesses provide paid community service days for employees who serve as substitute teachers in Sangamon County schools. The employees would become state-certified to substitute teach and would fill in for full-time teachers pursuing further teacher training. A pilot version of that program is scheduled to start in Springfield public schools this year.

Mary Loken, a program director for the Sangamon County Regional Office of Education, is working to organize and analyze data collected by the pre-kindergarten screening program.

“To me, the absolute beauty of this process is that it’s a community-wide effort,” Loken says. “We’re hoping this will be perceived as valuable enough to continue. We know we can do it.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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