NKY gets back to school with new kindergarten readiness program

Prepared kindergarteners make good students. Good students make responsible adults. Responsible adults make a strong workforce and regional economy.
That’s the straightforward thinking behind Pre-K Works, a readiness initiative powered by Skyward (Vision 2015) and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Now the question is whether the program, which rolled out in Erlanger/Elsmere Schools with the new school year, will succeed as a model for districts across the Northern Kentucky region.
Kindergarten readiness is a concern that’s been growing among educators for a long time. Statewide, teachers use the standardized Brigance Early Childhood Screens to test language, motor, self-help, social-emotional and cognitive skills in the first five years — a time, researchers say, when more than 90 percent of human brain development occurs.
The tests revealed that across Kentucky only about 53 percent of children were equipped with the skills needed to successfully begin school. That percentage dropped to 37 in Erlanger/Elsmere, and some Northern Kentucky school districts reported even lower averages.

Those figures led Skyward to feature early education reform as one of its core focus areas over the next five years.
To target the problem and to carry out its mission of preparing 1,000 more kids for school by 2020, Pre-K Works introduces a multi-tactic approach with goals that include:
• Increasing access to effective early learning for 3- and 4-year-olds
• Expanding the number of quality childcare providers
• Boosting capacity for best-practice home-visitation programs
Organizers have designated a task force co-chaired by retired Northern Kentucky University President Jim Votruba and former Vision 2015 Vice President Kara Williams.
“Research tells us that two-thirds of learning achievement gaps exist the day a child walks in the door for kindergarten,” says Williams, whose own concerns as a small-business owner and parent prompted her to get involved. “Providing high-quality learning experiences early in life has a lasting impact on later learning, behavior and health. It also has a tremendous impact on our workforce and economic development.
“I want my child to succeed, and I want our local economy to thrive. Investing in early childhood education supports children, families and our overall economy.”
Pre-K Works organizers chose Erlanger/Elsmere Schools to model the program in part because of the collaborative work the district was already doing. In addition to its partnerships with local preschools and early childhood-focus organizations like Children Inc., the district has implemented an intentional communication plan, better strategies for sharing and utilizing resources amongst parents and educators and a schedule of regular community events designed to create a sense of investment and inclusion for everyone involved.
Pre-K Works will build on Erlanger/Elsmere’s existing framework and introduce measurable elements that include:
Me and My School: A free six- to eight-week summer program to familiarize parents and children with the kindergarten environment;
Born Learning Academies: Brain development workshops and interactive videos to help parents turn everyday activities into learning opportunities;
Toddler School: Free 10-week preschool option for children ages 12-36 months;
Erlanger Elsmere Early Childhood Community Collaborative (E3C): Grassroots collaborative designed to allow educators to share best practices and conduct professional development;
Blended Public and Private Preschool Model: Pre- and after-school program that gives working parents an option for all-day childcare; and
Footsteps 2 Brilliance Learning App: Free research-based web app featuring eBooks, learning activities and games for any child living within district boundaries.
Collaboration and policy keys to success
According to Erlanger/Elsmere Superintendent Kathlyn Burkhardt, Northern Kentucky children have lagged behind for a number of reasons. Outdated policies, unreliable data and lack of parental involvement all play a factor — mostly, she says, poor communication among educators is to blame.
Kathlyn Burkhardt 
“This program can’t look the same in every community, and it won’t be successful if school districts aren’t actively involved in facilitating it,” Burkhardt says. “Talking, listening to each other and figuring out how we can take the resources we have and maximize them to make a difference in the lives of children.”
One step in achieving that level of collaboration is electing the right leaders to shape Kentucky’s education policies. In his career as a college administrator, Votruba’s focus was “more on the aggregate than the individual,” but he has since discovered a passion for formative education and is committed to advocating research that shows a direct link between early learning and success in college and beyond.
Votruba’s major responsibility as Pre-K Works co-chair is to lobby for support from Kentucky legislators who share the program’s commitment to early education.
“Nothing is more powerful in ensuring a bright future for Kentucky than universal access to high-quality education,” he says.
It’s projected that high-quality early childhood education can result in as much as $7 ROI for every public dollar invested. Such hopeful projections drive home the education piece of Skyward’s overarching plan for boosting Northern Kentucky’s economy.
“Skyward’s commitment to early childhood education is premier in its education goal,” says Skyward Vice President Kristine Frech. “We are excited to be among leaders looking to implement Pre-K Works across the region.”
In order to get there, organizers must ensure that the program is clearly outlined, well supported and accessible by other districts in the region. Disseminating program information and encouraging school leadership to share successes at regular stakeholder meetings will be key, in addition to earning community buy-in through regular events designed to promote awareness and parental involvement.
“I have full confidence that all involved understand not only the importance of Pre-K Works’ message, but also the financial constraints involved and how to overcome them,” Votruba says. “We have a plan for encouraging state government to act on this challenge (and) it’s an investment that will have major impact. It’s profoundly worthwhile.”
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