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Study shows school readiness gaps in Sonoma County fall along ethnic, socioeconomic lines

Latino children in Sonoma County entered kindergarten equipped with critical skills at a rate half that of their white peers, according to a new report from a local coalition focused on early learning.

The educational disparities are even larger between children from poor families and children from families who earn $100,000 or more annually, according to the study by the READY Project, which annually publishes research on kindergarten readiness among Sonoma County children.

“Gaps still exist,” said Oscar Chavez, assistant director for the Sonoma County Human Services Department and chair of the First 5 Sonoma County Commission, which support the project.

The READY report — short for Road to the Early Achievement and Development of Youth — summarizes four years of data that illuminate the rate at which local children in eight Sonoma County school districts are showing up to kindergarten with the skills needed to put them on the right academic track.

Researchers said that disparities in kindergarten readiness between children from different economic and ethnic or racial groups can lend insight into the origins of achievement gaps later captured in state metrics, such as testing scores and graduation rates.

“The whole focus in the READY Project is to find a way of addressing any learning issues as early as possible — to find the necessary support systems, so we can mitigate the learning loss,” Chavez said. “We wanted to create a learning community where we could use data to try and understand what we could do differently.”

2016-19_READY Report_6-18-20 For Posting.pdf

Research has shown that children’s early development and experience in kindergarten can set the tone for their long-term academic achievement.

To determine a student’s readiness for kindergarten, researchers used a tool to assess their knowledge and their social and emotional skills. Kindergarten teachers, who are trained by the READY Project researchers, observe and score each of their students in areas including recognizing shapes and colors, self-regulating and cooperating with peers.

The total score places the child somewhere on a four-tier scale rating their readiness for kindergarten. Beyond the snapshot added to the READY Project research, those student profiles also help teachers plan lessons that will resonate with students throughout their first year of school.

“I just think there’s a lot of value in knowing where exactly your students are upon entering school,” said Jeremy Decker, who as superintendent of the Cloverdale Unified School District led his district to participate in all four years of the READY Project’s data collection. He’s now superintendent of the Windsor Unified School District. “And it can also help you know how far they’ve grown in their first year of school.”

Parent surveys provide additional information about the students’ socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, including whether or not they attended any preschool and for how long. Survey information is matched up with each student, allowing researchers to see the correlations between those factors and the students’ levels of kindergarten readiness.

“We feel like the parent survey helps capture some more nuanced pictures,” said Norine Doherty, READY Project manager and primary author of the report that summarized findings from 2016 to 2019.

The student profiles and parent surveys together enabled the researchers to see the persistent gap over the four years between Latino and white students. While white students’ readiness hovered near the 50% mark each year, Latino students’ readiness only rose above 30% in 2017-18.

“It’s not that all students are struggling,” Chavez said. “We need to think about, why are the gaps continuing and what do we need to do?”

Household income revealed an even starker disparity in kindergarten readiness in 2019. Children from families making $100,000 or more showed up kindergarten-ready at a rate more than twice as high as their peers who came from families earning $34,999.

Income, naturally, can determine whether or not many children are able to attend preschool, which can make a notable difference in their readiness for kindergarten.

“It’s really an opportunity gap,” Doherty said. “That’s what we hope the community will get from this type of data.”

The study also looked at the efficacy of two preschool programs deployed by First 5 Sonoma County in recent years. Early results showed that children who attended either the Avance or Pasitos program were more likely to show up to school equipped with the monitored skills.

“If we’re able to determine a type of educational structure that moves the needle on school readiness more, that would be really valuable information,” Doherty said.

Faced with the disruption to classrooms wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the READY Project did not collect data this fall. Researchers plan to resume data collection in 2021.

By continuing to explore students’ school readiness in the context of their environments and backgrounds, Chavez said, agencies and organizations with dollars to invest in programs can better understand “not just the learning aspects, but also the external forces working against well-being of children and families.”

“It’s important that we use the READY data to inform a more holistic look at, what are the community conditions that are conspiring against the well-being of kids, and (whose attention) do we need to bring this to?” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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