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Children are born ready to learn; it’s on us to give them the right opportunities--here's what one district is doing to close that gap, like these two kindergarten boys lying down reading books.

What if every child could start school ready?


Children are born ready to learn; it’s on us to give them the right opportunities

Children begin learning the moment they’re born. That means it’s never too early to begin setting children up for future academic success. When we talk to them and read to them, we expose them to a more literature-rich environment that helps them grow.

Unfortunately, not all children receive that exposure, widening the achievement gap. Evidence of that gap begins to show up as early as kindergarten — and it affects students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds far more than their more privileged peers.

Related content: Student achievement begins with the family

But what if every student started school ready?

A recent meta-analysis found that children who participate in early education are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be placed in special education or retained to repeat grades. With more early education options, I believe millions of students would benefit academically, professionally, and personally for years to come.

At Marion County School District, we’re determined to find out what would happen if all our students began kindergarten ready. In an economically distressed community, it’s not easy, but with focused determination and strong partnerships, we’re well on our way.

Bringing kids to the classroom

As an educator and superintendent, I believe early education is vitally important. Children need to learn fundamental skills like literacy, numeracy, STEM concepts, and social/emotional understanding. In the classroom, our teachers can give children a jumpstart on their education thanks to the South Carolina Child Early Reading and Development Program (CERDEP). This full-day, early education program is aimed at helping four-year-olds develop the foundational skills required to enter kindergarten. Currently offered in most school districts in our state, the program is available to our eligible four-year-olds at no cost.

Additionally, the South Carolina First Steps 4K program allows us to leverage federal funds for specific programs such as providing books to the students in our Academy of Early Learning to take home.

While we would like to see every child in our district attend one of our PreK programs, the funding from this state initiative only covers a limited number of seats. That being said, our district wants to give every child the opportunity to become kindergarten-ready, so we found a way to bring the classroom to our students enrolled in our Academy of Early Learning.

Bringing the classroom to kids

Learning doesn’t happen just in the classroom. A child learns every moment of the day, and much of that education happens in the home. So it only makes sense to involve the child’s most important advocates—the parents.

Early education is as much about educating the parents as it is about educating the children. That’s why when we look for partner organizations, we look not just for those that provide evidence-backed solutions with research demonstrating their efficacy, but also those organizations that empower parents.

Recently, we had the opportunity to partner with one such organization, Waterford UPSTART. This online early learning solution makes the process easy for parents by providing tools like 15-20 minutes of adaptive reading, math, and science software five days a week, as well as a family education liaison (FEL) who walks parents through the process. By providing a free laptop and free internet access to families who cannot afford them, Waterford UPSTART eliminates many of the common barriers our parents and students are likely to encounter.

To kick off the program, we held a launch event to bring parents into our early learning center. I believe this was an important step in making the home-to-school education connection early. Parents were not only able to meet our teachers, but they were also introduced to the Waterford UPSTART program, shown how to log in, and taught how to monitor their students’ progress and engage with them about what they were learning. This is a critical step in the process, because we know when parents actively engage in their child’s education that child is more likely to succeed.

And succeed they did! Those students who completed the program in Marion County started school on average at a kindergarten intermediate level.

By investing in early learning and empowering parents to engage and support their child’s education, we can make huge strides towards closing the achievement gap for many of our students in Marion County. When we put our children and their education first from the very beginning, we are ensuring that every child has the opportunity to succeed.

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