One recent morning, in an apartment just a few blocks from Leggett Elementary School, Tina Penzenik sat on the floor with a boy who turns 5 today and will start kindergarten at Leggett this fall.
She showed Julius Kulcsar a book called Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh, about three white mice who run through red, blue and yellow paint and leave multicolored tracks.
''Footprints? Uh, oh, what do you think happens?'' she asked Julius while the boy's mother, Melissa Hicks, observed quietly.
''The rat goes through there,'' said Julius (most kids to whom Penzenik reads Mouse Paint identify the rodent as a rat). ''Yeah, they go in the paint. This book is called Mouse Paint. Let's see what happens. Let's see how the footprints got there.''
Then Penzenik got out some paints so Julius could see for himself how primary colors can be combined to make new colors.
''Yellow feet in a blue puddle make. . . . ''
''Green!'' Julius shouted.
''Green. You're right,'' Penzenik said.
It was Julius' book to keep, like all the books that Penzenik has brought him since they started working together monthly to get him ready for kindergarten.
But her main job was not so much to help Julius as to help Julius' mother learn how to become her son's first teacher through books and structured learning activities.
Penzenik is one of two women (the other is Monika Hale) known as ''parent partners'' in a parent mentoring program that is in its second year in Akron's University Park neighborhood, which includes Leggett and Mason elementary schools.
Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) is a national program funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to improve kindergarten readiness by building reading, language and social skills.
Stark County was one of eight sites in the
country selected for the initiative. Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton operates the program in Canton, Minerva and more recently, Alliance, for children ages 3 to 6.
The first kids in that program are in third grade now. It has proven so successful in improving kindergarten readiness that Kellogg has approved money to replicate it in other cities.
Akron was the first replication site, and Akron's initial results appear to be on track with the gains in the Stark County SPARK program.
Basic framework needed
Well-prepared children come to kindergarten with a basic framework for learning, which is usually achieved in households where parents read to their children and provide them a wide range of educational experiences, including preschool.
Children lacking that framework for learning start out in public education behind their classmates and tend to fall further and further behind with each grade, educators say.
Ohio has been assessing just how far kindergartners are starting behind since 2005.
The state has given the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment-Literacy (KRA-L) test to incoming kindergartners every fall since 2005 to measure a child's ability to comprehend and process oral language and identify letters, rhymes and sounds.
Scores on the test are divided into three bands. Children scoring in the highest band are the most ready to learn to read. Those in the middle band might need help in certain areas, and those in the lowest band will need lots of help catching up.
Urban districts such as Akron typically have high numbers of incoming kindergartners in the low and middle bands.
Of Akron's 1,742 kindergartners this year, 24 percent scored in the lowest band and 39 percent scored in the middle band. Just 37 percent started school ready to learn to read without needing special help.
In Leggett and Mason, the other elementary school getting SPARK help, the numbers were even more dramatic.
Just 30 percent of Leggett's kindergarten class started this year ready to learn without any intervention. Only 16 percent of Mason's kindergartners started ready.
King Elementary, by comparison, is in the upscale Firestone cluster, and 72 percent of its kindergarten class started the year ready to learn.
Julius is getting speech therapy at Akron Public Schools' integrated preschool at United Disability Services, a program that includes children who might need extra help preparing for kindergarten.
But most children in the Leggett neighborhood don't come to kindergarten with preschool experience.
''I have some children who went from the kitchen to the classroom: no day care, no preschool,'' said Leggett kindergarten teacher Liz Herbst. ''It's an educational travesty,'' because some parents aren't aware that they can enroll their children in preschool programs such as Head Start.
On a continuum of zero to 10 in terms of readiness, those kids start at a one or two, she said.
''Their small motor skills and ability to cut are less successful than those who have already been allowed to use scissors,'' she said. ''How to hold and grip a pen, a pencil or a crayon is more successful if they come to a program. And socially, they're better.''
The kindergarten teachers at Leggett say they can and do catch children up, but their job would be easier if children came better prepared, and that's where SPARK comes in.
The University Park Alliance represents a 50-block area surrounding the University of Akron that includes Leggett and Mason elementary schools, a highly transient neighborhood that the organization is trying to improve.
In 2007, the alliance was looking for ways to boost education and turned to the Summit Education Initiative, an organization of community leaders dedicated to improving education in Summit County. They zeroed in on the lack of kindergarten readiness at Mason and Leggett, said the initiative's executive director, Judy Hummel.
The timing proved right in 2007 for SPARK in Stark County, which was looking to replicate the program elsewhere. The Summit Education Initiative asked Greenleaf Family Center, a nonprofit family counseling agency, to train the parent partners who would go into the homes.
The GAR Foundation supplied the funding — $1.08 million to start SPARK for 4-year-olds and open a preschool for the Mason elementary neighborhood.
The program started last March with 19 children who received a compressed version of the full program. Those kids entered kindergarten this fall at Leggett and Mason.
Organizers actively recruit parents through a variety of methods, including walking door to door with fliers, which was how Julius' mom found out about it.
The current SPARK group that Julius is in has 40 children who will enter kindergarten next fall.
Here's how it works: Parent partners visit families in their homes eight to 12 times a year and show parents effective ways to build basic literacy skills. Kids get free books and other learning materials, as well as their school supplies for kindergarten.
The parent partners meet routinely with experts who can screen children for developmental and physical problems and provide early intervention that otherwise children wouldn't receive until they were in kindergarten.
But is SPARK actually working?
Peter J. Leahy, a senior research associate at the University of Akron's Institute for Health and Social Policy, has been tracking the progress of children in the SPARK program since the first group entered kindergarten in Stark County in 2005.
He compares SPARK children with other children in the same classrooms and similar socioeconomic backgrounds from kindergarten through third grade.
His most recent data show significant improvement on those kindergarten-readiness tests the state gives each fall, as well as other measures that show SPARK children outperforming other children.
SPARK kids in Canton, Minerva, Alliance and Akron scored an average of 20 points on the state's 29-point KRA-L test in 2008 compared to a 17.9 average score for the other children. Both scores are in the middle band, indicating children need some targeted help, but SPARK kids are scoring higher in that band, a significant change according to the Ohio Department of Education, Leahy said.
Akron's KRA-L scores for 2008, a shortened pilot year, are based on 11 students who received an average of about 10 visits (eight visits are considered a full program). Those kids scored 18.8; other kids scored 16.9.
''It's tentative, to be sure,'' Leahy said. ''We're talking about 11 children. But it's a good sign that the effects that we've witnessed in Stark County in Alliance and Minerva and in Canton are starting to be replicated here, and after only a few months of operation. I think it's pretty promising.''
As the children get more ready for the schools, the schools are getting more ready for them.
Leggett is one of 10 schools in Ohio that received a $10,000 ''ready schools'' grant from the Sisters of Charity Foundation this year to improve the transition to kindergarten. As part of that grant, Leggett held an open house recently for the SPARK kids who will become Leggett Tigers next fall.
Children and their parents got to meet the kindergarten teachers, do some activities and meet the Akron Public Schools mascot, Gilby.
Children got a book for their home library, and parents got a kindergarten registration packet. Julius and his mother, Hicks; and his SPARK parent partner, Penzenik, were there.
Penzenik has noticed that Julius is speaking better and is more outgoing than when she met him, but her best hope for him is how well his mother has responded, continuing the reading and activities at home in between visits.
The SPARK program's success will depend on whether she continues that engagement with her son's education in kindergarten and beyond. Hicks said she will.
''I want him to proceed in school and do well in school,'' she said.
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.