Evanston School District 65 officals told the School Board Monday they plan to double the number of students at the Early Childhood Center who are kindergarten ready over the next three years.

Sharon Sprague, appointed director of early childhood programs a year ago, said that the average rate for kindergarten reading readiness for students leaving the Joseph E. Hill Center for Early Childhood Education has been 37 percent over the past three years. The strategic plan calls for reading readiness levels to reach 50 percent next year, 65 percent in 2021 and 75 percent in 2022.

Kindergarten readiness is measured by the Illinois Snapshots of Early Literacy.

The JEH Center offers educational programming for at-risk students aged 0-5. The Family Center for children up to age 3 includes Early Head Start and Home Visiting programs. The Early Childhood Center provides Head Start, PreSchool for All and special education programs for children from age 3 to 5.

All programs are publically funded through local dollars and federal and state grants.

Students selected for any JEH program must demonstrate risk factors for future academic success in one or more criteria. Demographically, 39 percent of students are Hispanic, 30 percent black, 18 percent white, 6 percent multi-racial and 7 percent Asian, with 74 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Sprague says root causes for the low level of kindergarten readiness, especially among black and Hispanic children, include economic hardship, trauma, home language other than standard English, lack of cultural relevance in curricular materials, lack of diversity among staff who don’t look like the the children they serve and a tendency for staff to unknowingly hold low expectations for students.

The three-year plan presents six goals to meet student needs and improve student outcomes:

  • Ensure JEH Center is well organized for continuous improvement
  • Create a culture in which teaching and learning is driven by diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Create a climate in which students’ social-emotional developmental needs are addressed and supported
  • Ensure that all children are individually prepared for kindergarten
  • Strengthen family and community partnerships to support learning opportunities
  • Align resources with goals to ensure student success

Strategies to support these goals include more collaborative teaching, training in anti-bias teaching practice, hiring more teachers of color, teaching children to express emotions in school-appropriate ways, training in early literacy instruction through purposeful play, increasing family involvement in the school and realigning resources to meet student needs.

Anya Tanjavutti, board vice president, asked how the JEH programs for children 0-3 to address critical needs to get them to literacy.

Sprague said all staff use the Creative Curriculum to understand children’s needs and design activities to support early literacy.

Tanyavutti then asked how JEH informs parents about opportunities to support their children and help close the gap caused by social and economic barriers.

Sprague said JEH helps parents engage with their children, sends library books home and partners with Cradles to Crayons to provide clothing and other items to families, while family support advocates invite families to events and encourage parents to support each other.

Sprague said that JEH is not a large enough program to serve all the families in need, but they refer parents to other programs.

Tanyavutti asked about the difference in literacy standards between Teaching Strategies Gold, the assessment used at JEH, and the ISEL assessment used in kindergarten.

Sprague said the two assessments are aligned in social-emotional learning but TS Gold has slightly lower expectations than ISEL in other measures. She said the staff need to understand the gap and push a bit more if needed.

Tanyavutti said Sprague should let parents know about the differences so they’re not surprised if a child’s ISEL assessment in kindergarten is lower than they expect based on TS Gold.

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