Oregon Community Foundation awarded the grant due to their belief that children may enter school behind

by: KEVIN SPERL - Alexis Tanori (LEFT) and Brena Moyer, students in Jennifer Pursewell's kindergarten class, work on an exercise in the library at Ochoco Elementary School.

Believing that it is never too early to start, the Oregon Community Foundation has awarded the Crook County School District a $75,000 grant for projects designed to improve the district's preschool student's readiness.

OCF contends that, by the age of 5, a child’s brain is 90-percent developed, and asserts that many children may be so far behind upon entering kindergarten, that they never catch up.

Ochoco Elementary Principal Dave Robinson agreed.

“We see some kids coming into kindergarten that are prepared with proper literacy skills,” he said. “But we see others that seriously lack those same skills. Our concern is for those students' ability to catch up.”

Realizing that today’s students are expected to meet increasing educational demands at every grade level, Robinson, and others, were compelled to apply for the grant.

“Crook County has a high level of poverty, with over 74-percent of students at Ochoco Elementary eligible for free lunch,” explained Robinson. “Many of those kids are not exposed to any structured pre-kindergarten programs.”

It was an email to Robinson from district Superintendent Duane Yecha, that got the application process underway.

“Please apply for this grant,” Yecha's email read, referring to the OCF opportunity.

“That one five-word email has changed my life,” laughed Robinson.

Hopefully, if all goes as planned, it will change the lives of students as well.

OCF's $1.5 million, three-year strategy is intended to help ensure school readiness and future success for Oregon’s young children, particularly those most at-risk of not thriving in their education.

To manage the grant money, a local team of educational experts has been formed that, besides Robinson, includes Cathy Fall, Ochoco Elementary kindergarten teacher, Brenda Comini, director of the Crook County Commission on Children and Families, Patty Wilson, program manager at NeighborImpact Child Care Resources, Linda Benson with Adventureland Preschool, and Barratt Miller of the Crook County Library.

The group has been active, attending OCF training conferences, studying other established programs, and organizing a kindergarten readiness fair that brought together teachers, preschool providers and other early learning resources.

As recently as two weeks ago, the group held a curriculum training session, attracting 23 preschool, home school, and day care providers.

Readiness of students, as young as kindergarten age, has been getting attention from the state's Department of Education, going so far as to linking early readiness to high school graduation rates.

“Our recently released kindergarten assessment results are an excellent reminder of the importance of giving students that strong early start,” said ODE Superintendent Rob Saxton. “Improving our graduation rate begins with getting students prepared for kindergarten, ensuring they are strong readers by third grade, making sure to address issues of chronic absenteeism, and finally helping students connect to the world of work and earn college credits while in high school.”

The grant, part of OCF's P-3 (prenatal through grade three) Alignment Implementation program, are intended to ensure that preschool children are prepared for school and able to read at appropriate grade level.

“OCF’s P-3 alignment program will support the state’s efforts to better integrate all parts of the education spectrum, helping elementary schools work collaboratively with early childhood providers and parents of young children and ensure successful transitions into school,” said Mary Louise McClintock, OCF’s Director of Education Programs.

Robinson agrees that third-grade reading level is a milepost by which readiness appears to be measured, but, he has reservations about assesment methods being the only measure of success.

“We should never base a student's potential solely on initial assessments,” he said, while acknowledging research contending that the education achievement gap begins as early as nine months of age.

The P-3 alignment initiative attempts to bridge that gap between elementary schools, the providers of early childhood care and education programs, and parents of young children.

“It is getting harder for kids to enter the structured environment of public school when they are not used to it,” said Robinson. “We need to get them to appropriate levels of socialization, play and interactive languages as early as possible.”

He noted that significant time spent in front of the television, or playing video games, does little to promote those skills.

However, even universal access to preschool is not enough, and better aligned early education and elementary systems is needed. Research shows that the early education landscape is made up of a wide variety of early childhood education services that is typically disconnected from each other and the local elementary schools.

Armed with the $75,000, Robinson is looking forward to the challenge.

“I'm just really excited to see this happen and we are really coming together for these kids,” he said. “It is energy-inspiring to see how much people care.”

Robinson also predicts a future where early education becomes an actual component of public education.

“We may begin to offer more, and different, types of preschools,” he said. “There is a national trend to building cooperation between preschool programs and the public schools, and there is a possibility of preschool being in the public school system.”

Parents of children entering kindergarten are invited to attend the following events:

• The ABC’s of Parenting will meet on Wednesdays, from March 12 through April 30. For those with children aged 4 to 6, the program teaches parents, and their children, how to achieve school success through games, activities and puppets. There is no cost to attend. The program meets from 5:30 to 7:40 p.m. at Ochoco Elementary School. Contact Gail Schmutz at 541-447-3260 for information.

• On Monday, April 7, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., Crook County will host a Kindergarten Round-Up. Parents of children who will turn 5 years old on or before Sept. 1, 2014 are encouraged to attend and register their child. Call 541-447-7675 or 541-447-6488 for more information.

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