Diane Mata dropped off her youngest son, Tony, at Fresno Unified's Easterby Elementary for his first day of kindergarten this week. She hopes the alphabet letters and shapes she cut out, labeled and pasted to the wall at home helped prepare him for his first year of school.
"He's a good little boy," Mata said. "I just want to stay on top of him."
Now Mata, a mother of seven, will have a little extra help. Fresno County's largest school districts have rolled out a program that will assess how prepared kindergartners are for school and flag problems that appear during a child's first weeks. Sharing crayons with classmates, identifying circles and squares, counting blocks and naming the colors of the rainbow -- these skills predict how students will perform over the next few years of school.
"These areas are pretty much the foundation of how they will learn in the first and second grade," said Analuisa Gonzales, a kindergarten teacher at Central Unified's Biola-Pershing Elementary School. Not mastering such skills in kindergarten will be a red flag, she said.
The Kindergarten Student Entrance Profile -- known among educators as KSEP -- will be introduced to classrooms in Fresno, Clovis, Sanger and Central unified school districts this year. All kindergartners in the four districts -- about 11,000 -- will be assessed during the first month of school. Eventually, the program will expand to every school district in the county. Previously, educators had to wait for second-grade test results to have a scientific assessment of where students lagged.
The new teaching tool is a united effort by community organizations and county school district leaders to strengthen early childhood learning, which they hope will improve graduation rates and sluggish academic performance. KSEP is the latest in new programs aimed at mending the area's persistently high dropout rate. Schools and community groups have mobilized with renewed efforts across the county -- grass-roots organizations dedicated to keeping kids in school, new data systems to track attendance and student demonstrations.
Now, the focus has shifted to the county's youngest students.
"High school graduation rates get the headlines," said Christina Bath Collosi, a consultant helping First 5 Fresno County, a state-funded organization that provides services for children through age 5 and is paying for KSEP. "The cure is early childhood."
KSEP results will be shared among the four districts, which together have 70% of the county's kindergarten students, and will help guide improvements to county preschool programs. Kendra Rogers, executive director of First 5 Fresno County, said the assessment will give First 5 its first snapshot of the large-scale impact of its programs. The organization, which is supported by a cigarette tax, has pumped about $160 million into Fresno County school-readiness programs since 2001.
"Up until now, we have really had no way to measure how our kids are prepared when they show up for school," she said. "If you look at all the money that we put into the community, we want to say that we are making a difference."
KSEP also will give teachers a sense of how successful a student will be over the next two to three years. Data from Santa Barbara County schools, which began using the assessment eight years ago, show that two-thirds of children who tested in the highest category also tested high on second-grade state tests. Among those who were unprepared for kindergarten, only one out of 12 were proficient on state tests two years later.
Push for graduation
Most children who do not read at grade level by the third grade will continue to read poorly, struggle through high school and may drop out, according to a study by VIVA, a California-based consulting group assisting First 5. The stakes are high for the student and community. Dropouts are more likely to turn to drugs, gangs and crime; end up in prison; be unemployed and be teen parents. Each student who does not complete high school costs an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity, according to the study.
An early warning might have helped Mata's older son, James, who dropped out in the 10th grade. Mata, of southeast Fresno, said her son scored high on tests but struggled with reading and writing. He was held back in sixth grade, after which his self-esteem plummeted. If the school had identified James' struggles as early as kindergarten, Mata said, he would have had a better shot at finishing high school. Now 24, James recently completed his GED.
KSEP ties together several Fresno County initiatives to increase the number of students who meet third-grade reading goals and graduate from high school. This year, Fresno Unified's Graduation Task Force recommended improvements to early childhood learning -- particularly revamping preschool curriculum and literacy programs -- as part of a 16-part plan to address its low graduation rate, which state data puts at about 73%.
Deputy Superintendent Ruth Quinto said KSEP also will address some of the problems highlighted in a report from the Council of Great City Schools, which this year issued a scathing assessment of the district's disjointed programs, inconsistent teaching and failure to adequately prepare students for the next grade level.
KSEP also will boost efforts by the Fresno Regional Foundation to improve childhood literacy in some of Fresno's poorest neighborhoods, said Natalie Garcia, the organization's program manager. The Fresno Grade Level Reading Campaign -- part of a national reading initiative to close the achievement gap between poor and minority children and their more affluent classmates -- aims to double the number of children reading at grade level by the third grade by 2020. The Fresno Regional Foundation is working with Lowell, Jefferson and Webster elementary schools. At Jefferson and Webster, about one-third of third-grade students tested proficient or better on the state reading and language arts test in 2011, according to the California Department of Education. At Lowell, just 19% of students are proficient or better.
A starting point
While educators are quick to tout KSEP's effectiveness, Michael Furlong, a UC Santa Barbara professor who helped create KSEP, cautions that the program's success depends on school districts and parents paying more attention to all young children and intervening -- quickly.
"We're hoping it ... motivates everyone -- parents and schools -- to get an early start following up with kids, and not waiting," Furlong said. "This doesn't give you the answer; it just starts the conversation."
Some parents agree that good teachers and involved parents may do more to ensure a child's success than any formulaic assessment. Lisa Pierson, who has two children at Easterby Elementary, worked with her older daughter's teacher three years ago to find a speech therapist. Kindall, now in third grade, "has improved 100%," Pierson said. "A lot of it rests with the parents," she said. Pierson encouraged her younger daughter, Kayla, who started kindergarten this week, to practice her letters and colors with her older sister during homework time. But even with Kayla's preparation at home, and with KSEP to flag any problems, Pierson was nervous dropping her off at Easterby on Monday. This year, she said, will lay the groundwork for Kayla's whole education.
"Kids who had a bad kindergarten experience, those are the kids that are struggling now," she said. "I don't want my child to be one of those."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @heathersomervil on Twitter.