It’s the summer of 2022, and parents are enrolling their 5-year-old children in kindergarten for the fall semester. The United Way of Howard County's goal is to have at least 75 percent of those children prepared to walk into their first day of class.
Currently, the United Way estimates that only 45 percent of children entering kindergarten are “ready to learn,” meaning they’re prepared for learning in a classroom setting. Bringing that number up within five years is no easy task, but the United Way has committed to working with schools around the county to do it.
How? They’re starting with an assessment, created in collaboration with Ball State University. It will help the United Way, local school districts and the early childhood education providers figure out how many children are entering kindergarten ready to learn.
Delaware County started a similar initiative a few years ago with the goal of getting 100 percent of children ready to enter kindergarten. By5, an organization in Muncie, began working with Ball State University to develop an assessment for schools in the county.
They found early on that more than 50 percent of students were entering kindergarten without the skills they’d need to succeed in the classroom. The data for 2016 suggests a possible shift, showing that only 48 percent of students are under-prepared. Carrie Bale with BY5 said it’s hard to say whether this change will signal a trend – the numbers could jump past 50 percent again next year. But she said they’re hoping it means the community’s efforts are making a difference.
Part of that involves simply getting the word out about the importance of engaging children 5 and younger. Bale said one of the biggest roadblocks to that early childhood development is when children live in low-income homes. These children, she said, have been exposed to fewer words and books than children in middle to high income households. To combat this, she encourages parents to read and talk to their children often.
As BY5 continues to collect data over the next few years, Bale said they’ll have a better picture of what works best to prepare children for kindergarten.
Bale said community involvement is key in making changes.
“It’s human nature – I wanted to do it, too – saying, ‘What are we going to do? Let’s plan, let’s plan, let’s plan,’” she said. “But if you haven’t built the community will and the understanding and the desire beforehand. … It just kind of dissolves.”
Smith echoed Bale, saying that the initiative to improve early childhood learning in Howard County is not the United Way’s; it’s the community’s.
“We really do need the whole community supporting us,” Smith said. “We asked what they wanted and this is what they told us.”
For some early-learning providers, including school districts, the assessment will show them what programs work best to prepare students for kindergarten.
Jeff Hauswald, superintendent of the Kokomo School Corporation, said the school will be able to effectively expand its preschool programs with the results of the assessment. It will also help the school see which pockets of the city need the most attention when it comes to preschool programs.
For other early providers, the assessment will show what kindergarten teachers are looking for when it comes to students who are ready to learn. Brooklyn Dugdale, director of full-day preschool for Bona Vista, said kindergarten standards are more rigorous than they were a decade or two ago.
“[The standards] have definitely changed,” she said. “Kids are reading in the first semester of kindergarten now.”
Brittnee Smith, vice president of therapies and development for Bona Vista, added that as kindergarten standards rise, preschool standards need to rise as well to make sure students are prepared.
“We have to adapt to higher standards and prepare them at an age as young as 3,” Smith said.
Christie Tate, director of childcare for the Kokomo Family YMCA, said she’s excited about the uniform assessment.
“This is good,” Tate said. “We want our kids to go to kindergarten prepared.”
But the goal of improving and expanding early childhood education isn’t just to make sure students are ready for kindergarten. According to the National Education Association, studies – including one by economist Robert Lynch – show that children who receive early childhood education are more likely to graduate high school, less likely to get arrested later in life, and more likely to add to their community’s economy.
For the United Way of Howard County, investing in early childhood education means investing in a future 15 to 20 years down the line. The results might not necessarily make a world of difference right away, but as today’s 5-year-olds enter the work force, they’ll be better prepared for jobs and better prepared to help give back to the community, Smith said.