Learning comes hard for London Slabaugh. He just can’t sit still and pay attention. When he listens to a story, he wants pictures to help him follow along. He takes up a disproportionate amount of his teacher’s time.
So London will be repeating kindergarten this fall. But he is lucky; he has the family support educators say is crucial.
His mother, Tiffany Slabaugh, pays close attention to the academic progress of all three of her sons, notices their differences and tries to accommodate each of them.
The process started at birth.
“We knew going into the first year that he may not be where he needs to be,” she said recently in her North Hill home.
Kindergarten is a fading memory for many adults who remember it filled with play, naps and everyday adventures like grocery trips and zoo visits. They might not realize that educators now consider it a key moment in a child’s education, with high achievers moving on to educational excellence and losers requiring costly remedial education that taxpayers often balk at financing.
Ohio, unfortunately, has fallen to 37th in state programming in preparing kids for school.
And by the time they reach kindergarten, some important opportunities have been missed. One in four in Summit County is likely to struggle.
Many parents are surprised by what a 5-year-old is expected to know.
Mary B. Outley-Kelly, executive director of education for Akron Public Schools, said parents might ask her: “You teach that in kindergarten? That doesn’t seem like kindergarten. They used to teach that in third grade.”
Examples might be: Seeing addition and subtraction equations, geometric concepts such as shape and orientation, and reading concepts, among them storytelling and recognizing poems and storybooks. Most kindergartens last all day and have less play time.
The good news is that preparation for a formal education can be fun. Many people call it play or story time or just talking to the children. Outley- Kelly said it can start at birth.
“If you have those rich experiences before kindergarten, you have that exposure to literature, the exposure to different picture books so that someone can discuss concepts of a story with you to enrich your imagination and then you start to develop the vocabulary that goes along with the reading process, all of that will help them when they start kindergarten,” Outley-Kelly said.
What do kids need to know? The Summit Education Initiative has a list of 51 skills for kindergartners sorted into five categories: early learning setting (listens and participates in small group settings), social (takes turns with other children), motor development (walks up and down stairs with alternating feet), communication (expresses ideas to inform the listener) and pre-academic (produces words that rhyme).
The entire list is available with this story on Ohio.com.
Derran Wimer, executive director of SEI said: “You don’t have to be a teacher. You don’t have to have a degree, you just have to spend some time with a child and you can help them. Literacy is really the basis of academic success — being able to recognize numbers and letters.”
Problems come with all the complications of modern family life: Single parents stressed for time may need two jobs, rely on buses or walking to get around and might not spend the time they should with their kids.
They also might not be able to afford $150 to $200 a week for full-day preschool, and Head Start openings have been reduced by federal budget cuts.
“If they are sitting with mom or grandma and they are not playing with the children in the neighborhood, then they are missing out,” Wimer said. “Parents who have means organize their play groups. … But parents who don’t have means, that don’t have transportation, they have a hard time figuring how to manage their day let alone managing their child’s day to arrange for their development of non-cognitive skills.”
Allyson V. Lee, Akron’s Head Start director, said her “parent-focused” program educates parents as well as kids.
“We get the children prepared on the educational realm but we also get the parents prepared so that they can be advocates for the children,” she said.
Paying the price
Tiffany Slabaugh estimates her family income at around $40,000. Her husband, Eric, left school after ninth grade and does not have a GED. Nevertheless, he is the manager of a retail store’s warehouse.
Tiffany Slabaugh works overnight three shifts a week at a grocery store. That helps her be with the kids during the day and volunteer at school, although a relative also watches the kids when she is asleep after a night shift. Her $400 a week goes toward education for her three sons.
The Slabaughs knew London wasn’t as ready as the other kids, but they still sent him to kindergarten at a private school in Cuyahoga Falls a year ago.
“We put him in kindergarten anyways, knowing he would most likely repeat because he would get a lot more out of kindergarten,” Tiffany Slabaugh said. “Being with the other kids, learning what he needed to do, he was getting so much more out of a year in kindergarten than he would out of another year of preschool.”
Many parents focus on the question: Is my child ready for kindergarten?
Sarah Jackson, early learning and school readiness coordinator for Summit County’s Educational Service Center, said there is more to consider.
“I do believe that, when you talk about readiness, we again put it all on the child and it’s not all on the child,” she said. “We need to think about how we work together to support that child and, regardless of where that child is at, we need to deal with that.”
She resisted identifying a best age to start kindergarten and whether to advance a child to first grade if parents are dissatisfied with the progress.
“It’s really hard to say,” she said. “I think it is individualized. … I think if we are doing our job I think we can meet the needs of all children.”
She said parents often are concerned about delayed social skills, especially for children who do not interact a lot with other children.
She offers comfort for parents agonizing over sending a child to school early.
“If we are doing our job, there shouldn’t be a problem. [Schools should] be able to meet the needs of children,” she said.
Volunteering at school helped Tiffany Slabaugh keep aware of London’s progress.
She noticed the teacher spending more time with London than other kids. At home she saw differences between London and Kingston, 3, and Britain, 13.
Reading to them every night she noticed: “Britain had comprehension where he could close his eyes and see the story. London never had that … he had to look at the pictures.”
Every child entering kindergarten is given a test called Kindergarten Readiness Assessment — Literacy or KRA-L.
Educators are quick to say it only measures a short point in time and can lead to misleading conclusions. It is not used for class placement. But the score, when compared with future performances, reveal how important early education — the part most controlled by parents — can be for a child.
“We know that over 50 percent of being ready for kindergarten is measured on the KRA-L test,” said Wimer of the Summit Education Initiative.
KRA-L results are on a 0-to-29 scale and Wimer’s SEI organization has found that pupils who score 19 or better are 35 percent more likely to achieve at high levels by third grade. In Summit County, 72 percent of kids taking the test are at that level entering kindergarten.
“A 19 puts you on a trajectory to be achieving at the advanced or accelerated third-grade reading test,” Wimer said. “You’re on pretty good footing if you can walk into kindergarten and score a 19.”
SEI is taking those scores throughout Summit County, looking for trends and passing results to all schools.
The group also is asking preschool instructors to fill out the 51-point form for each kindergartner, tracking progress and passing information to kindergarten teachers who formerly knew little or nothing about the kids showing up for the first day of class.
“The whole goal is that when children leave preschool, it would be nice to have a common end-of-preschool report,” Wimer said.
The first report comes this fall.
Making things better
Multiple studies show that a family’s wealth is a significant influence on a child’s success.
The SEI estimates only half of Summit County children experience preschool before entering kindergarten. The local Head Start program that served more than 1,500 students last year is being forced to cut 93 slots because of federal “sequestration” cuts.
“It’s a problem,” said Wimer. “It sickens me that we are not able to provide these opportunities for children to start school on equal footing. It sickens me when I see that.”
Government programs can help, but Wimer said they can’t do it all.
“I think it’s a mistake to rely on that,” he said. “I think as a community we have to take it on. I don’t think we can look to Summit County or the state. They should be supporting that financially and so on, but it really has to become a community cause. I really think it has to be targeted and purposeful. Because it is really hard to volunteer, it is more difficult to commit and you need commitment to make it valuable for the kids, so I think it needs to be that type of thinking.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.