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Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015 12:07 am

Thinking of the children

Coordinated effort to help disadvantaged Sangamon County students

Nichole Heyen, principal at Lincoln Magnet School.
Photo by PATRICK YEAGLE

 

From the moment they’re born, some children face hurdles to their mental, emotional and physical development. However, a movement is growing in Sangamon County to help those disadvantaged kids reach their potential.

A report released Oct. 14 by The Sangamon County Continuum of Learning outlines a comprehensive plan to give disadvantaged kids better resources and opportunities. The report, titled “Sangamon Success,” represents a large coordinated effort by schools, nonprofits and social service providers to remove the barriers keeping some children from success.

The Sangamon County Continuum of Learning is a partnership between the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Central Illinois. Last year, the three organizations assembled representatives from dozens of other groups which are concerned with child development in Sangamon County to research best practices. In essence, it was a village looking for the best way to raise a child.

David Racine, executive director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield, was responsible for making many of the recommendations in the report. Racine is a member of the coordinating council for the Sangamon County Continuum of Learning, and he represented the university in the Sangamon Success project. He says the project is ultimately about using evidence-based practices for the public good.

“We want to get the community behind the general idea of using what we learn from science to get better outcomes for less advantaged kids,” he said.

The continuum will focus on nine main recommendations for now, implementing them over the next two or three years, Racine says.

The report released Oct. 14 details more than two dozen recommendations, covering from before children are even born until they graduate high school.

“The emerging scientific consensus is that preschool is probably too long to wait to take action to try to ensure that every child gets off to the right start,” said Melissa Stalets, director of quality and program evaluation for Mental Health Centers of Central Illinois.

Children should have safe births to healthy mothers who know what to expect and whom to ask for help, the report says, focusing its first recommendations – such as homecare visits by nurses for low-income, first-time mothers – on the prenatal stage through age two.

Tiffany Simmons, executive director of Community Child Care Connection in Springfield, says children ages three to five are just beginning to develop the mental “traffic control system” that helps them absorb and process information, make decisions and interact with others. However, children who grow up with stresses like poverty and family instability are more likely to show underdeveloped cognitive functions.

“If this set of challenges is not addressed,” Simmons said, “these less advantaged children are more apt to enter elementary school behind their peers and have an extremely difficult situation trying to catch up.”

To aid in that development, the report suggests that all children in Sangamon County should be enrolled in quality preschool or child care. Simmons says effective parenting is also important, so preschool and child care programs should help parents reinforce what their children are learning.

From kindergarten through grade five, children should develop the ability to read, so the report recommends that schools adopt proven “reading intervention” curricula to prevent children who struggle with reading from falling behind. Additionally, summer reading programs can help students avoid losing ground when school isn’t in session.

During the same age range, children develop the social and emotional skills needed for healthy relationships. The report calls for expanding mentorship programs, stronger parental involvement in schools, expanded access to child mental health programs and more support for after-school programs.

“Less advantaged children are more likely to come from families with a single parent,” said Sheila Boozer, director of teaching and learning for Springfield Public Schools. “It is more often difficult for these families, when acting alone, to provide the range of help their children need to advance educationally.”

Nichole Heyen, principal of Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, says children in grades six through 12 become more independent, with attitudes and beliefs that are less malleable. For less advantaged kids, setbacks during this period of development can set the course for the rest of a student’s life, she says.

The Sangamon Success report calls for schools and nonprofits to set high expectations for all students by communicating confidence in each student’s abilities.

“There’s very compelling evidence and research that shows when less advantaged students are surrounded by adults who express and believe and show confidence in their ability to succeed,” Heyen said, “(the students) will shift their mindset and believe in that as well.”

To ensure more kids graduate high school ready for college or a career, the report recommends having more schools participate in dual credit programs, which allow students to earn college credit while still in high school. Heyen says not all students are interested in a career which requires a college degree, so technical and career training should be offered to more students.

John Stremsterfer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, said the report may be daunting, but the commitment from a wide variety of schools and agencies around the county is clear.

“It really was a wonderful effort by the community,” he said. “It was just really robust discussion by bright people who really care a lot about this community.”

For more information on Sangamon Success, visit www.continuumoflearning.org/sangamon-success.

Contact  Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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