Linking Ready Kids to Ready Schools: A View from Ohio

Linking Ready Kids to Ready Schools
A View from Ohio
September 15, 2008

Three kindergarten teachers from Dorr Street Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio, huddled with their principal and other educators in mid-September to contemplate how to reach out to the children who will be in their classrooms in the coming year – and beyond.

Without intervention, as many as one-third of those children will not be ready for kindergarten. And kindergarten might not be ready for them.

But through a new pilot program, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton, educators scattered across Ohio are working to change that. Their goal is considerable and complex: to transform the education system in a way that will better serve children from their earliest days through their school years and, ultimately, throughout their lives.

“We really believe that the work that is happening here in Ohio that you all have been a part of, at the schoolhouse level, at the community level and at the regional and state levels, really has a wonderful opportunity to have lasting impact” in Ohio and nationwide, said Gregory Taylor, vice president for programs at WKKF.

So the handful of staffers from Dorr Street and those from seven other elementary schools traveled to Columbus for a one-day Governor’s Forum to learn about cutting-edge efforts already underway in the state and to map out strategies for their own schools.

The ideas were abundant. For Dorr Street, they included making sure all pre-kindergarten children have at least three opportunities to connect to the school before classes start, increasing resources and staffing for the first days of school, assessing students during the first week of school, identifying future students early, and helping parents prepare students for school.

The brainstorming session kicked off a pilot program that could change not only the practices of Dorr Street Elementary School and the other seven schools represented at the forum but, eventually, all public schools in Ohio. And, along with similar programs in other states, it could lead to new ways to provide seamless transitions for children throughout the nation as they progress from birth all the way through graduate school.

“You know the first year of a child's life is a time of just incredible growth and development. We all know that. There probably is no other expenditure of resources that brings us the benefits and the rewards like a modest investment in our youngest children can bring to us,” Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said as he opened the forum September 15. “It is, obviously, becoming increasingly recognized through research that when we provide the youngest of our children with a healthy start in life, with good, high-quality early child care and education, that the results of that investment and that involvement last into the adult lifetime. And a better start for our children will result in a lot of the problems that we are currently dealing with in our society to be minimized.”

For the past few years, Ohio has been one of seven states plus the District of Columbia to participate in SPARK, Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids, an initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. SPARK’s goal is to improve learning for vulnerable children by cultivating partnerships among parents, early education providers, elementary school teachers and principals. The idea is to make children ready for schools and to make schools ready for children – to provide seamless transitions starting in the earliest years of life.

Ohio has been cited as a leader in the effort, and was selected by WKKF and the Education Commission of the States (ECS) as one of five states to conduct governor’s forums analyzing practices and policies that affect early learning. The 2008 forums will generate information intended to guide policymakers in state and national government and will conclude with a session in Washington, D.C. in early 2009.

Strickland announced at the forum that ten communities in Ohio had been chosen to participate in the pilot program. He said each would receive a $10,000 grant to develop a plan and to begin implementing steps “that will help us redefine what readiness means and to make sure that it includes the role of a school community.” Without community involvement, he cautioned, “I believe we will not achieve our desired results.”

Further, Strickland noted that the SPARK project in Ohio led to a partnership with the state’s Department of Education and the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators to create a “ready schools” resource guide. The 122-page guide, “Strong Beginnings, Smooth Transitions, Continuous Learning: A Ready School Resource Guide for Elementary School Leadership,” offers goals, plans and detailed suggestions for how schools can be ready for children and offer them seamless transitions.

Providing children with a strong start will minimize problems later in life, including joblessness and crime, Strickland said. Citing the prison population as one example, he said that “one of the reasons that we are experiencing the kind of problems we are within our society is related, in significant part, to the failure of young children to get the kind of healthy, nurturing, positive start in life. If we do what we are talking about this morning, more of our children will graduate from college, they will lead healthier lives and they will benefit by having greater economic success in their personal life.”

Revamping the education system will require a paradigm shift nationwide, one that moves the country from spending money on remedial work – helping youths at risk of dropping out – to spending it on readiness, so they never get to that point.

“What have we done in this country for the past 50 years? We spent our time on remediation… High cost, low results. That is it,” said Roger Sampson, president of the Education Commission of the States. “One out of every four kids in this country starts their experience at kindergarten and first grade not ready – not ready to go forward. We continue to say we want them to compete internationally. It is no wonder that we have dismal graduation rates, that we are transitioning students into something beyond high school with little success. The remediation rates in secondary schools – post-secondary schools – is approaching 50 percent in this country – 50 percent! It makes sense that we start this from the very beginning with the right start and not let them fall behind.”

Sampson, a former principal (and later superintendent and education commissioner) in Alaska, said he didn’t realize until after the fact that even his school was not ready for its students.

“I would suggest that most of our schools really are not ready. They are not ready to receive those ready kids,” he said. “We are not ready to address the needs of those kids.”

Sampson lauded SPARK for focusing on core states that can provide roadmaps for the rest. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, he said, recognizes “this has got to be moved towards policy, and we also recognize that if you do not have models to follow, then you probably will not get there as a country,” he said. “So there is a tremendous amount of pressure on Ohio. You’ve always led us in education. Please help us lead on this next one.”

One key reason to provide the youngest learners with seamless transitions is to help them build skills they will need as they move into the workforce, Sampson said. He said that the students graduating from high school in 2008 will hold an average of ten full-time jobs – eight of which haven’t been created yet – by the time they are 35. They need to know how to transition from one to the next.

Sampson said that, in the past, it has taken an inordinate amount of time for the nation’s education system to change. That’s why he said ECS is pushing hard for what is known as a P-20 system, which would take children from their first years through graduate school.

“We cannot wait another decade to have really effective, seamless P-20 systems in this country,” Sampson said. “It is time that we do this correctly.”

Kellogg Foundation's Taylor highlighted three areas that need improvement:

  • Transition and alignment. Often, when children enter elementary school, they lose some of the skills they learned in early childhood education, he said. It is important to bridge that gap and make the transition smoother to maintain those gains.
  • Parent engagement. One policy target is to effectively engage parents in their children’s learning.
  • Alignment between curricula. The early childhood system and the K-12 system need to communicate and fit together better.

Further, Taylor said, school systems need to deal with the longstanding problem of racism. “We know, unfortunately, that racism is still an active fact in this country today.”

Perhaps no state school superintendent knows more about the lingering effects of racism than Hank Bounds of Mississippi. Nationwide, one quarter to one third of children are not ready when they enter kindergarten, a statistic most educators bemoan. By contrast, Bounds said, “If we were at one in four, I would be jumping up and down and celebrating… We’re [at] three out of four not ready.”

His explanation: the interwoven history of race and poverty. A full 80 percent of Mississippi public school children receive free or reduced lunch, he said.

“It is no secret that racism has been a huge part of our history,” Bounds said. “I am really excited about where Mississippi is moving. But I think part of moving forward requires a brutal confrontation with the facts and requires one to be totally honest… In the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest areas on the planet, we have a dual system: white kids go to private school and African American kids go to public schools.”

Many Mississippians are working to address the problem, Bounds said. “The organization that is pushing early child care the hardest, particularly for poor and minority kids, is and organization called the Delta Council… a group of rich white farmers that goes back to plantation times,” he said. Despite the council’s history, Bounds said its members realize it is good for business and for the entire community if all children receive a quality education.

Principals all over the country must follow that lead, he said, and “boldly confront the facts.” He asked the principals attending the forum to think about the makeup of their schools and the transitions that take place as children leave preschool or home care and enter kindergarten. He urged them to understand the plight of vulnerable children and what he called an “absolute, desperate need” to connect with early education providers.

“The child from poverty has heard, on the average, 30 million fewer words than the affluent child. The affluent 5-year-old has the same vocabulary level as the poverty parent,” Bounds said. “It is frightening when you really understand those data pieces. We know that vocabulary levels of 5-year-olds are great predictors for future reading success.

“Now let us bump to the third grade. We know that kids who cannot read by age 8 are exponentially more likely to drop out of high school, and they are exponentially more likely to go to prison. Three or four states actually predict prison bed space needs based on the numbers of kids who cannot read by age 8. Clearly that is the alarm to do things differently.”

The challenge to teachers is tremendous, he said. “If we do not get kids ready for kindergarten, it is almost impossible to move them the miles and miles that we have to move them between kindergarten and grade eight.”

Bounds said the burdens of poverty and race mean that educators need to do more than simply teach.

Ready-school principals understand that there are two kinds of school communities: demand communities and supply communities, he continued. Demand communities are ones in which parents – likely educated themselves – demand excellence from the schools. “We would storm the gate if we even saw one little blip on the radar screen,” he said, using his own neighborhood as an example. In Mississippi, Bounds added, “most of our communities, unfortunately, are supply communities. What happens in supply communities? What kind of schools do children get? They get what they get, right?”

Ready schools, he said, build demand communities to make sure parents of all racial, economic and academic backgrounds have the knowledge and resources to help their children prepare for kindergarten. Ready-school principals build relationships with early child care providers, be they preschools, community centers or grandmas.

Bounds punctuated his point with his own story. “I can tell you that I grew up in a very poor environment. I do not ever remember my parents ever reading a book to me, or ever having the first conversation about going to college,” he said. “Good teachers saved my life. But what I want you to know is that my parents love me as much as the richest parents on the planet and wanted the best for me. The problem is, is they did not know what they did not know. They did not know what to hope for. They did not know what great aspirations were. And that is where you are, and that is why you have to build ready schools and build ready communities and attack those issues.”

Stark County, Ohio, which has a SPARK program, is a testament to what can happen when schools reach out to parents before their children start kindergarten, said Susan Zelman, the state’s Superintendent for Public Instruction.

Children in the SPARK program are “coming to school ready to learn,” she said. Further, she said parents in the SPARK program are reading more to their children and both parents and children are getting better access to health and human services.

But, Zelman said, the nation needs a “greater sense of urgency” to make sure that vulnerable children don’t fall through the cracks.

“We have to do diligence to make sure that our scarce resources are going to children (and) families who need it the most,” she said. “That is the role and responsibility of government, and we need a moral compass here in this country and this state.”

Ronald Young, president of the board of directors of the Sisters of Charity Foundation, said the SPARK program in Stark County has served 800 children, the oldest of whom are in third grade. The program has made a marked difference in the lives of children, he said.

“We have data that show that parents who are at risk of not preparing their children properly for kindergarten make important gains in their own ability to prepare the child for kindergarten entry when they are part of the program,” Young said. Using statistics that compare children by economic background, race and gender, he said SPARK children have performed better than their counterparts who are not in the program.

That’s exactly the kind of results the schools in the pilot program are hoping for. The schools were selected to represent a cross-section of the state – rural, urban, suburban, from different economic groups, geographic areas, races and ethnicities – said Lisa Usselman, a consultant to the Office of Early Learning and School Readiness in the Ohio Department of Education.

“Our number one goal is to determine what does it mean to be a ready school,” she said. “What can we do to impact quality? We want to build upon children’s early learning experiences, if they’ve had them. If they haven’t, we need to learn how to get them where they need to be by third grade.”

The long-term goals of establishing ready schools are to improve student achievement, get students on grade level, and narrow the achievement gap, said Sandy Miller, director of early learning and school readiness at the Ohio Department of Education.

Rather than dictate policy, the Education Department decided to partner with WKKF and the Sisters of Charity in a way that would allow each community to figure out what works for it, Usselman said. After the first year, the pilot program will add more schools to the roster for an additional year, she said.

Elementary schools participating in the program will reach out to parents, early child care providers and others in their communities. They also will serve as resources to other schools that are not in the program.

“At the end,” Usselman said, “we will know if we have made any inroads. We will know if we have put a dent in the door.”

For more information, please contact: Andrea Sybinsky, Communications Consortium Media Center, at or 202-715-0381.

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