Recent kindergarten readiness results show that only half of Kentucky’s children arrived at school ready to do kindergarten work this year. In response, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood have released a new tool called the “Superintendent Toolbox” to help superintendents improve kindergarten readiness in their communities.
The Superintendent Toolbox serves as a one-stop shop for resources and tactics to build meaningful partnerships between early childhood education and P-12 to create quality early learning opportunities for future students. The toolbox is a model to demonstrate how shared responsibility between families, schools, early care providers and community partners can help improve outcomes for children from birth through third grade.
“Often a school system’s first contact with its students is when they register for kindergarten, but too many children arrive unprepared to be successful,” said Terry Tolan, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood.
Research shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before age 5. The skills and knowledge children enter school with varies widely based on their access to stimulating, age-appropriate interactions in the earliest years of life. For many, kindergarten is too late to catch up to their peers. That is why giving superintendents the necessary tools to engage families and community partners around kindergarten readiness is an essential part of improving outcomes for children.
According to a 2011 survey conducted by ChildTrends, as many as 40 percent of Kentucky’s children do not go to an organized setting prior to entering kindergarten. That means nearly half of Kentucky’s children do not attend Head Start—a state funded pre-K program—or a community-based child care. Education leaders say improving kindergarten readiness has to go beyond just improving programs.
“Truly, it is about offering a continuum of services through multiple initiatives and thinking about differentiating those services to meet the diverse needs of families,” said Erlanger-Elsmere Superintendent Kathlyn Burkhardt. “I will say that, first and foremost, we have found that the progress we believe we are making is attributed to building authentic relationships with parents and other early childcare partners.”
With only 37 percent of the children in her district kindergarten ready, Burkhardt and local partners created a joint strategy to improve outcomes for children in the community. Partnering with Head Start, community-based preschool, local government and community groups meant that ongoing initiatives like the Erlanger-Elsmere Early Childhood Community Collaborative could be developed to share data, align strategies and collect best practices. The collaborative nature of this work, Burkhardt said, strengthened outreach to families and caregivers, expanded early childhood services and ensured the best use of limited resources.
The Superintendent Toolbox features best practices from districts like Erlanger-Elsmere to provide ideas for other superintendents preparing to take on the challenge of kindergarten readiness in their own districts. It provides specific examples that may be used as a guide to assess existing building blocks and map relevant community partners.
The toolbox was launched at this year’s Kentucky Association of School Administrators Summer Institute in July. During the superintendents’ luncheon, a panel featuring four Kentucky superintendents on the forefront of these community mobilization efforts–Kathy Burkhardt of Erlanger-Elsmere Independent, Nannette Johnston of Hardin County, Rachel Yarbrough of Webster County and Henry Webb of Floyd County–discussed strategies that have worked best to boost school readiness in their districts.
Early care programs have been a particular focus of Kentucky leaders. Kentucky was one of five states to receive a grant from the National Governors Association this year to expand access and improve the quality of early care and education programs for children from early childhood through third grade.
“Kentucky has been focused on expanding access and improving the quality of its early child care and education programs for several years, and we look forward to enhancing those efforts through this partnership with the National Governors Association,” said Tommy Floyd, chief of staff at the Kentucky Department of Education. “Research shows that exposure to high quality learning environments and developmentally appropriate experiences from birth to 5 years old is critical for children to achieve success in kindergarten and beyond, so they stay on track throughout school and graduate college/career-ready.”
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has made improving early childhood outcomes a priority throughout his administration. In 2011, he established the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood. Kentucky was awarded the competitive Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge federal grant in 2013 to help families and early childhood programs better meet the needs of young children.
Legislation also was passed earlier this year to strengthen Kentucky’s quality rating system for early care and education programs, allowing families to more easily identify quality and supporting providers. Called the Kentucky All-STARS program, it is being piloted this year, with statewide implementation targeted for 2016.
The Superintendent Toolbox provides one more tool to help communities coordinate their work to expose more children to high quality learning opportunities at home, in the community and in schools. Tolan said everybody has a role in make sure the state’s youngest children succeed.
“Superintendents and school districts must partner with families and community partners to reach young children and their families so that every child arrives at school ready to grow, ready to learn and ready to succeed,” she said.