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Despite growing efforts to improve access to early childhood education and boost school readiness in Sonoma County, 60 percent of children enter kindergarten unprepared.

Three in five kids overall weren’t ready for kindergarten last fall, according to a study released last week that looked at how children did academically, emotionally and socially in school. Three-quarters of kids from Spanish-speakng households were behind.

Commissioned by First 5 Sonoma County, which funds programs and services promoting early childhood development, the study included more than 2,000 kindergartners in 35 schools across 11 school districts, about a third of all kindergartners in the county.

Roughly 1,400 of their parents also were surveyed about the kids’ early learning experiences. The $200,000 study found the majority of students could write their names and play cooperatively but struggled to focus on tasks, control their impulses, and recognize shapes and colors. Access to preschool, parents’ education and the language spoken at home played key roles in school readiness.

The results, early learning advocates say, underscore the importance of providing affordable high-quality preschools that meet the needs of working and low-income families. For the study, kindergarten teachers spent the first month of school screening children, as was done the previous year, when the analysis determined 64 percent of kids were unprepared. While there was a slight improvement last fall, North Bay Leadership Council CEO and President Cynthia Murray hoped for greater gains.

“The biggest surprise is that we haven’t made more progress,” said Murray, who sits on the First 5 Sonoma County Commission.

Since 2009, the commission has invested more than $25 million in programs and services, such as Pasitos, an educational play group for Spanish-speaking parents and their 3- to 4-year-olds not yet in preschool. Murray said more work is needed reaching Latino families and informing them about programs that could remove barriers to preschools.

A third of the kids surveyed were in the Santa Rosa school district, which works with Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County to provide several kindergarten readiness programs, such as Pasitos and Avance.

It also has two state-funded preschools and Head Start.

“Kindergarten standards are more rigorous than they were years ago,” assistant superintendent Anna-Maria Guzman said. “Students must leave kindergarten able to read and write.

Students must be met where they are and receive the support to make the progress necessary to be ready for first grade.”

Cost and lack of transportation are among the biggest barriers for families accessing preschools, said Leah Benz, early care and education specialist for First 5 Sonoma County. Preschool costs an average of $10,000 a year, she said.

Families often find they don’t qualify for free or low-cost state-funded preschools because they make slightly more than the maximum income allowed, which hasn’t been changed in a decade, Benz said.

A family of four would have to earn $46,896 or less to qualify.

Then, there is the challenge of finding a preschool that fits with the family’s work schedules.

“A lot of preschools run part-day, part-year, but a lot of parents work swing shifts and weekends,” Benz said.

Overall, three-quarters of children screened went to preschool or transitional kindergarten the year prior to entering elementary school, but the number significantly differed between English- and Spanish-speaking households — 80 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

The time spent in preschool also varied. English-speaking households enrolled their kids in the programs for an average of 19 months, compared with 161/2 months for Spanish speakers.

Those early childhood years are key for children’s development, Murray said, with 90 percent of their brains developing before age 5.

The frequency of parents reading to their kids — particularly children living in Spanish-speaking homes — is critical. Spanish-speaking children were three times more likely to be ready for kindergarten when parents read or shared picture books with them at least five times a week.

Parents with a bachelor’s degree or higher were three times more likely to read to their kids at least five times a week than households where neither parent graduated from high school.

According to the First 5 Sonoma County study, 42 percent of English-language households had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher — four times more than Spanish-language households.

When children aren’t ready for kindergarten, it can have long-term consequences: They’re less likely to read at proficiency once in the third grade, and that makes them four times more likely to drop out of high school and ultimately run the risk of being unemployed, dependent on public assistance and falling into the criminal justice system.

The nonprofit Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, known as 4Cs, along with the Sonoma County Office of Education, River to Coast Children’s Services and First 5 Sonoma, has rolled out a rating system in the county to create uniform standards at preschools and other early childcare facilities while providing educators with one-on-one coaching.

The council provides 1,300 vouchers to help working families cover some of the cost of early education childcare and preschool, said Melanie Dodson, the 4Cs’ executive director.

The council also runs 12 state-funded preschools in the county, serving 500 kids from low-income families. Dodson said they have room for up to 75 additional kids, but families struggle to qualify because of income eligibility rules.

The nonprofit’s preschools were a guiding light for Luz Acosta and her two kids, whom she adopted after their mother — Acosta’s sister — died from cancer three years ago.

Her son, Emilio, attends a 4Cs preschool.

Her daughter, Brisa, previously attended one for two years before going to elementary school, where she’s now in first grade.

Acosta said the girl became quiet and timid after losing her mom, but preschool teachers worked hard to prepare her for kindergarten, academically and emotionally.

“It took time, but she’s now social. She’s more confident in herself,” Acosta said, adding she’s seeing similar growth in her son, who will be entering kindergarten in August.

“He knows how to write his name, count and sing,” she said.

“The preschool has been a big support for our family.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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