Age 3 is not too young to think about kindergarten. Taking a look at Evanston’s youngest residents, Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C) has adopted a goal that 85% of the youngsters entering school in 2025 will be ready for the challenge of kindergarten. 

Kindergarten readiness at District 65 declined again this year, according to information from the District: from 60% in the fall of 2016, to 56% in the fall of 2017, to 49% in the fall of 2018. (See School District 65’s Achievement Report Presents Disappointing Results in the Feb. 7 RoundTable print edition or at evanstonroundtable.com.)

Sheila Merry, Executive Director of EC2C, said myriad factors could contribute to the decline: “homelessness, trauma, stress in families, undervaluing and under supporting early childhood educators and the predominance of technology, which has resulted in many parents interacting less actively with their children.”

At the joint meeting of the District 65 and 202 School Boards on Feb. 25, Ms. Merry acknowledged to the Board members that having 85% of Evanston’s children ready for kindergarten by 2025 is a “bold goal.”

District 65 Board member Rebeca Mendoza asked how EC2C planned to meet its goal.

“The partners wanted that sense of urgency,” Ms. Merry said. “I’m hoping that as we begin training more providers and training them earlier we will begin to see the results.”

She said EC2C’s Literacy on Track Action Team has specific strategies to achieve that goal: supporting parents as their child’s first teacher, streamlining access to supportive services and building connections for a strong start to kindergarten.

The tiny brain of an infant holds 100 billion neurons, and parents have to find a way to nourish not only the baby’s growing body but also the burgeoning mind. Research has shown the time from birth to age 3 is the most crucial for the development of the brain.  By age 3, most children interact with others outside of their own families – in day care, preschool or local enrichment activities – and have already begun to develop the skills they will need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

Support for Parents as the Child’s First Teachers

“Some parents don’t know what kindergarten readiness is,” Ms. Merry said. The Literacy on Track Action Team has implemented some strategies and is crafting others.

Already in place is the “Talk, Read, Sing” initiative, through which parents and caregivers receive a weekly “brain-builder” tip via email or text message. These tips are easy to follow, and they cost only the investment of time spent with a child – or perhaps just an enhancement of it. 

Two recent tips to encourage critical thinking and creativity were to give the child a paintbrush in the bathtub to “paint” the walls with water, and to mix two or three types of uncooked pasta in a bowl and ask the child to separate them by size or shape.

About 750 people receive these brain-builder tips, Ms. Merry said. A Spanish version of “Talk, Read, Sing” began before the holidays, she said. So far, about 25 people have signed up for it.

The Literacy on Track Action Team has also crafted a Parent Activity Guide, a pamphlet distributed to parents with activities designed for children ages 3 to 5 to help them prepare for kindergarten. The activities help develop language skills, social-emotional skills, cognitive thinking, early literacy and early mathematics. Families can talk about their day, sing nursery rhymes and make a trip to the grocery store into a scavenger hunt, as examples.  

About 3,500 have already been distributed, and the plan is to continue handing these out on a personalized basis – through teachers at early childhood centers and home daycare centers, for example, not just by placing them in a stack in a public space.

The committee plans to expand “Talk, Read, Sing” and track exposure to this program and to the activity guide, Ms. Merry said.

Streamline Access to Supportive Services

Two key efforts are already in place, Ms. Merry said: collaboration among home family visit programs and making trauma-informed counseling and services available on short notice. 

The trauma-informed counseling will be immediately available in 10 early childhood programs where signs of trauma have been identified, Ms. Merry said. “We met recently with Illinois Action for Children to learn more about the resources. Learning Bridge [early childhood education center] is already using them.”

“So how will you address the trauma of marginalization?” asked District 65 Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti.

Ms. Merry said Childcare Network of Evanston, the main driver of this program, has already hired three therapists.

The next step will be implementing new-baby visits as a connection to the in-home family visiting program.

“New-baby visits are research-based but significantly underutilized,” Ms. Merry said. “We will start with the perinatal unit at Evanston Hospital where there has been an identified need. 

“Family Connect is our initial home visit. What I would like it to be is universal, so all families get a visit.” She said at present there are meetings with perinatal professionals at Family Focus, Childcare Network of Evanston, Infant Welfare Society of Evanston and District 65 who could recommend families that would qualify for home visits.

District 202 Board member Gretchen Livingston said, “No one wants to utilize a home visit, no one wants a stranger in their home.” She said shortly after her family moved to England, she was notified there would be a home visit as part of the national medical program there. “When it’s universal, you don’t feel so targeted,” she said.

Building Connections for a Strong Start to Kindergarten

The exchange of information and ideas among early childhood providers works in tandem with support for parents in preparing children for kindergarten, Ms. Merry said. EC2C has held summits and classroom exchanges and has created a Strong Start to Kindergarten feedback form.

Diane Lequar, co-chair of the Literacy on Track Action Team, said the feedback form is an online tool for preschool teachers to share their insights with kindergarten educators about children’s strengths and challenges, in social emotional learning, language, cognitive thinking, early literacy and early mathematics – the same five domains that are outlined in the parent activity book.

The next steps in building the strong start to kindergarten are implementing supports for classroom management in four full-day early childhood programs and establishing shared metrics across early childhood programs to track progress, Ms. Merry said.

“I hear from early childcare providers that a lot are struggling with maintaining what they think is a healthy learning environment,” Ms. Merry said. A child who cannot sit still to hear a story will not be able to manage early literacy, she added.

District 65 Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “Early childhood education is very stressful work.”

The work on creating shared metrics is just now beginning, Ms. Merry said, because now there is a foundation for the partners to feel comfortable sharing data. “Importantly, it will also allow EC2C to track its impact prior to children reaching the District for kindergarten,” she said.

Further Discussion

 “I can tell by your tone that you share the dismay [of Board members],” District 202 Board member Jonathan Baum said to Ms. Merry, referring to the drop in the number of students who are ready for kindergarten.

“We prioritized kindergarten readiness,” Ms. Merry said. “This year we said all our resources should go to kindergarten readiness.”

District 202 Board member Monique Parsons said, “We need to figure out what we’re not doing from the time the parent gives birth to the time [the child] walks into kindergarten.  The conversation needs to be broader than what school facilities can do.”

Ms. Merry also updated the School Boards on how EC2C is building on the Districts’ commitment to equity. More than 500 staff and board members of EC2C and its partners have received training in either Beyond Diversity or SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity). Some partners have conducted equity self-assessments, and the plan is to help facilitate others to do that. She said there is no silver bullet to meet all the challenges to achieve this or any EC2C goal, but a term she has heard and likes is “silver buckshot.”