YONCALLA — There are certain skills kindergarten teacher Kaaron Lyons wishes all children had before they started school.
She ticks off a list. Students should be able to sit still, write their names, recognize letters, enjoy being read to and used to interacting with kids their age.
This is what the Yoncalla Elementary School teacher looks for, but doesn’t always see.
“We’re finding that a lot of kids are coming in, and they don’t even know the ‘ABC’ song,” Lyons said. “There are some times I have to spend six weeks on the introductory curriculum when it should take three weeks. You have to have a foundation.”
More significant than the amount of time spent adjusting to kindergarten, a lack of preschool education can have lifelong consequences. In recent years, Oregon educators and Gov. John Kitzhaber have become increasingly concerned by mounting research that shows children who start school behind often stay behind and fail to graduate.
At Yoncalla Elementary, a lack of readiness among its youngest students became such a concern that the Yoncalla School District tapped into federal Title I funding three years ago to start full-day kindergarten classes. Last May, the district formed a partnership with two nonprofit organizations to further tackle the problem.
The school district received a grant of approximately $60,000 from the Roseburg-based Ford Family Foundation to become the second district in Oregon to participate in a three-year project called the Early Works Initiative. The initiative, which was started by the nonprofit Portland-based Children’s Institute, strives to help schools prepare children for kindergarten.
The district is contributing about $15,000 to the effort, which could bring to Yoncalla resources such as preschool and parenting classes and summer literacy programs.
Still in its early stages, the initiative hopes to encourage community services like Head Start and the Yoncalla Library to partner with the school district to enhance early childhood education, said Christy Cox, a program officer for early childhood development with the Ford Family Foundation.
“This is more about a community coming together around the issue of early childhood development,” she said. “It’s about growing kids so they’re ready for kindergarten.”
The importance of early childhood education is well documented, but there isn’t enough collaboration between public and private agencies dedicated to the cause, said Katia Riddle, a spokeswoman for the Children’s Institute.
“The problem that we saw is that these (early childhood) programs were working in silos, and they weren’t really talking to each other,” she said. “If you consolidate those resources in one place, the potential impact is much greater. Our idea was to consolidate those resources and bring it to one school and make it a hub.”
Rural versus urban
Yoncalla Elementary, which has about 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grades, is the first rural school to participate in Early Works. Children’s Institute established another Early Works site at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland two years ago. After investigating how Earl Boyles could better ensure its kindergartners arrive ready to learn, Early Works helped open a Head Start preschool classroom at the school last fall.
Earl Boyes and Yoncalla elementary schools may serve as models for encouraging early childhood learning, Riddle said. Having an urban and a rural school will give a fuller picture of what is happening throughout Oregon, she said.
“We were interested in expanding into a rural area. The needs in Portland are very different from a rural area,” Riddle said.
What the two schools have in common is they both serve low-income populations that are less likely to have access to early childhood education, she said.
Since the Early Works Initiative came to Yoncalla nine months ago, researchers from Portland State University have studied how prepared Yoncalla students are now for school, looking at factors such as whether children are read to at home and attended preschool, Cox said.
Researchers also are asking parents, teachers and school administrators what the community needs to better prepare children for school, she said.
By next school year, Early Works hopes to make some of those suggestions a reality at Yoncalla Elementary, Riddle said.
Early Works in Yoncalla
Through its involvement with Early Works, Yoncalla has the opportunity to be at the forefront of a statewide effort to improve early learning, Superintendent George Murdock said.
The governor has made early learning a priority and initiated the Early Learning Council in 2011 to streamline state programs for at-risk youth and ensure all children are ready to learn.
Considering how much a lack of early childhood education can set kids back, it’s a worthwhile effort, Murdock said.
“It’s an investment. It makes sense economically,” he said.
The issue had long frustrated Yoncalla Elementary Principal Jerry Fauci.
“We found that kids were not entering kindergarten ready, and there was nothing we could do about it,” he said.
Then he met Cox, who lives across the street from him in Roseburg. When Fauci learned about her work in early childhood education with the Ford Family Foundation, he told Cox about how he wished Yoncalla Elementary could help prepare children for kindergarten.
The conversation inspired Cox to collaborate with Fauci to bring the Early Works Initiative to Yoncalla. She was impressed the school had already secured funding for full-day kindergarten.
“It may be the quintessential story of ‘I met the right person at the right time,’ ” Cox said.
A key part of the Early Works effort will be to reach out to parents as early as possible, Murdock said.
“So much of kindergarten readiness comes from parents,” he said. “Typically, there hasn’t been a connection between the school and child before kindergarten.”
Yoncalla Elementary has made some efforts to reach out to children and parents before they start school, but it hasn’t gone far enough, Murdock said. The school leases a room to a private preschool and has hosted parenting classes, which are poorly attended.
Fauci said he’s hopeful surveying parents will help Yoncalla Elementary learn to serve them.
“We’ve reached out to them with parenting classes. We’ve found we’re not meeting their needs. They’re not excited about it,” he said. “We’re trying to find out what they need.”
Murdock acknowledged that many parents in Yoncalla are worrying about more basic needs than if their children are prepared to learn. In these tough economic times, their biggest concerns are feeding, housing and clothing their children, he said. The district has found that if it hosts a parenting class or other events, parents are much more likely to come if dinner and childcare are available, Murdock said.
Yoncalla Elementary will have to find ways to help low-income parents provide their children with an early education, Fauci said.
“Poverty affects people in a lot of different ways,” he said. “We’re trying to discover what will really help (parents).”
Fauci is hopeful the district can maintain the momentum it gains from Early Works when the grant runs out.
“The goal is after three years, we find a way to sustain some services,” he said.
For Lyons, it’s thrilling to think about how Early Works will impact her kindergarten classes.
“I’m so excited. We’re realizing the resources that we have,” she said. “We’re going to see it continue to build, and I think it’s going to be really important to getting kids ready. Our parents want to be good parents, but they’re not sure how. If they know how and they know what to do, they’re willing to do it.”
• You can reach reporter Inka Bajandas at 541-957-4202 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.