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.
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