Are Stark County children more prepared for kindergarten and beyond than they were 10 years ago?
While there is no definitive answer on whether kids are better prepared today, statistics do show that about 1,000 more youngsters were enrolled in early childhood education programs governed by the state and other governmental agencies in 2010 than in 2000.
Preschool is not required, and often, parents do not send their kids. It is unclear how many children are not enrolled in a licensed program.
One fact is clear: The number of children in preschool is increasing. And the money being spent on them is decreasing.
Over the last decade, the number of children enrolled in Stark County in a preschool program licensed by the state or the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) has risen from 7,457 students to 8,596. In 2000, the state provided nearly $1.6 million in funding for preschool programs. In 2010, the funding was less than $1.5 million.
The ODJFS provided nearly $9.8 million for its preschool programs in 2002. In 2010, the agency provided more than $12.5 million, primarily because 479 more children were served in state fiscal year 2010.
WHAT ARE KIDS LEARNING?
“Preschool is more than crayons and building blocks,” said Suzi Keller, a former kindergarten teacher and an early childhood coordinator for the Stark County Educational Service Center, early childhood department. “Quality preschool programs provide children with learning experiences that are age-appropriate and enhance their independence, self-esteem, curiosity and problem-solving skills. It helps them develop emotionally and socially.”
However, a report released by the Ohio Business Roundtable in December titled “The Talent Challenge: Ensuring Kindergarten Readiness by 2020,” said Ohio is losing ground in terms of preparing children for the future. The roundtable is a partnership of chief executives of Ohio’s major businesses who represent all sectors of the economy.
According to the report, Ohio was one of eight states saluted in 1998 for funding comprehensive initiatives for young children and families. Every preschooler living at or below poverty level could enroll in a state-funded program.
In 2003, the National Institute for Early Education Research showed the state ranked No. 7 among states serving 3-year-olds and No. 19 for 4-year-olds.
Ohio was one of 10 states with well-established preschool programs whose funding was decreased in 2009. According to Preschool Matters, a publication by the National Institute for Early Education Research, Ohio dropped its Early Learning Initiative, launched in 2005, to raise school readiness through full-day, year-round prekindergarten for children of working families.
ACROSS THE STATE
Stark County mirrors what is going on in the state. During the past two years, Canton City Schools’ early-childhood program funding was cut 40 percent by the state, school officials said.
Canton City Schools Superintendent Michele Evans said funding for early-childhood activities for the upcoming school year is slated to be $837,335. That amount is subject to adjustments throughout the school year. However, the program is dealing with the cuts. Stimulus money made helped to make up the difference for the past two years. This year, Canton City School officials are looking at shortening the length of programs and hiring fewer staffers.
“We deal with the social and emotional side of a child’s development, as well as the academics portion in getting them ready to enter school,” said Dr. Sylvera Greene, program coordinator for the Canton City Early Childhood program. “Preschool is so very, very important.”
Kindergarten, she said, is the new first grade.
“Kids are required to learn so much more now. Many kindergarten teachers can tell the difference between those kids who went to preschool and those who did not, just because those who do are more balanced.
“Even a half a day of preschool makes a difference in helping a child get a head start emotionally, socially and academically,” she said.
The district offers special education preschool programs for children with learning disabilities, as well as health screenings to prepare kids for kindergarten and beyond.
“When we talk about readiness,” said Geri Grove, early literacy specialist at the Stark County Educational Service Center, “children should have an awareness of initial sounds, rhyme, alliteration. When we grew up, we sang songs, we said rhymes, all of those kinds of things, the things that build awareness.”
Another county program that serves Stark County is the Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids program, known as SPARK, which is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Locally, the Sisters of Charity Foundation oversees SPARK. According to Joni Close, president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation, the program serves about 385 3- and 4-year olds of predominantly low-income families. Once the program is in a neighborhood, it is open to all youngsters entering that neighborhood’s school.
SPARK works with children, families, schools and the community to ensure children are ready for school and schools are ready for families. It is a family-focused intervention program designed to prepare children for kindergarten by helping families help their children succeed in school.
The program began in Canton and Minerva in 2003. By 2005, its first preschoolers were enrolled in kindergarten. In 2007, SPARK expanded into Alliance. In 2010, families in Massillon were being served.
“Kindergarten is pretty academic now,” said Joseph French, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Alliance, a SPARK program in the city of Alliance. “The academic piece is important, but the social and emotional pieces are just as important.
“It might be one of the kid’s first experiences away from mom, so it is important for children to be comfortable with another caregiver, be able to make new friends and have structure in their life. In preschool, they learn to share, make friends and other little things that are important to children.”
French believes more children should benefit from preschool programs.
“Preschool is a cool place with long-term benefits for children,” he said. “I would like to see more money become available.”
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