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NCLB Outrages

School districts find gaps in kindergartners' readiness skills

Ohanian Comment: Probably the biggest fallout from NCLB is the enshrinement of data as king.

Between state standards and the federal testing mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, instruction is driven more than ever by data - not entirely a bad thing in the view of Carla Calevich, director of curriculum and instruction for the Brecksville-Broadview Heights district.

Wrong. Data worship is entirely a bad thing. We should declare a Decade without Data for students and concentrate on the data that gets so little attention, that of a living wage.

If you're going to compare the kindergartners' skills scores, how about looking also at their family income scores:

Bay Village Median Family Income: $81,686.

Cleveland Median Family Income: $30,286

Ask yourself what that extra $50,000 buys for a child's "readiness."

Edith Starzyk

When school resumes at the end of August, more than eight of every 10 kindergartners in the Bay Village district are likely to show up with all the skills necessary to start reading.

Fewer than 2 percent will need intense help to catch up to their classmates, if results are similar to those seen last year on a statewide assessment.

Compare that with the Cleveland public schools, where last year fewer than two of every 10 kindergartners scored at the high end of the state evaluation and 45 percent needed concentrated support to get up to speed.

The huge difference in readiness skills is evident in schools across Northeast Ohio.

In many cases, the results mirror what decades of research show: The chance of a child being well-prepared for kindergarten rises right along with the parents' income and education level and the use of high-quality preschool programs.

Yet, all public schools are ranked based on the same annual state tests. Cleveland just edged into the "continuous improvement" category - the equivalent of a "C" - last year. Bay Village is perennially in the "excellent" group.

The tests that contribute to such rankings start in third grade, so the pressure is on the minute kindergartners walk through the door.

Thea Wilson, who heads early childhood education for the Cleveland public schools, acknowledges there's a certain element of unfairness.

"Our children have to hurdle so many obstacles just to get to the starting gate," she said.

Among those obstacles, she said, is the poor quality of many child-care centers in the city.

Wilson is pushing to start up more free preschools at elementary schools across the district. In 2005, there were 22. Now, there are 40, and she hopes to add at least six next year with partial funding from Head Start.

She also is working to bring parents of the district's youngest children into the process.

Parent involvement is a given at Normandy Elementary in Bay Village, where James McGlamery is principal for students in kindergarten through second grade.

"The students are very much ready by the time they come to us," he said.

He estimates at least 70 percent of the youngsters have attended preschool.

"Years ago, children started to learn to read in first grade," said Carla Calevich, director of curriculum and instruction for the Brecksville-Broadview Heights district. "But with the new state standards, now that begins in kindergarten."

Between state standards and the federal testing mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, instruction is driven more than ever by data - not entirely a bad thing in Calevich's view.

"We can look at grade levels, classes and individual students to drill down and find areas of strength and need," she said.

Sandy Miller, who heads the Ohio Department of Education's office of early learning and school readiness, said the state has focused on reading since 2000 because "it is the foundation for all subject areas."

More recently, Gov. Ted Strickland and state legislators have beefed up funding so more districts can offer preschool, she said.

And the Early Learning Initiative - basically the state's Head Start for low-income families - is serving its target of 12,000 children after earlier versions were criticized for too-rigid eligibility requirements.

Using a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the state also will work with 10 schools - to be announced in September - to figure out how to ease children's transition from preschool to the early grades.

Ohio's investments in preschool will pay off down the road with more high school graduates and skilled workers and fewer people arrested or on welfare, said Debra Ackerman of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

"This is how you can get the best bang for your public dollar," she said.

But research has shown the levels of preschool attendance take the shape of a "U," she added, with use dipping for working-class families. They make too much to qualify for a subsidy but not enough to afford high-quality preschool.

The average cost for a full-day program in Cuyahoga County is about $11,000 a year.

County preschool program

also helps train staff

That's one of many problems tackled by Invest in Children, a public-private partnership administered by the Cuyahoga County commissioners.

Executive Director Gabriella Celeste said the just-completed first year of the county's universal preschool program saw about 1,000 children served at 24 sites. That includes private programs, Head Start centers and home-based care.

Participation is voluntary, but the ultimate goal is to make sure everyone has access to good, affordable preschools. Scholarships are given to help close the money gap for working parents.

Wade Child Care Center, in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood, is one of the universal pre-kindergarten sites getting that assistance. Stacy Sheppard, a teacher in the Cleveland district, said her 5-year-old son, Nile, has benefited from Wade's frequent field trips to nearby museums and its emphasis on vocabulary skills.

"If my son hadn't attended Wade, I might be nervous about him starting school. But they've gotten him ready for kindergarten and beyond," she said.

Help Me Grow is one of Invest in Children's partner agencies. As part of the program, specialists visit homes to teach parents about language development and link them to local libraries.

Tierra Dunn of Cleveland said specialist Sharon Fagin has given her helpful ideas about activities to put her 20-month-old- daughter, Taliyah Moore, on the path to reading.

Starting Point, another agency under the umbrella of Invest in Children, has been pushing the importance of literacy for years, said its executive director, Billie Osborne-Fears.

Wilson, from the Cleveland schools, said readiness scores there have improved over the past few years and the latest data on preschoolers show even more promise. "These children just need to get the opportunity to learn," she said. "We just need to plant the seed."

— Edith Starzyk
Cleveland Plain Dealer


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