Friday, August 20, 2010

IN State Education Dept. needs to address its own deficiencies

Don Wheeler

I was heartened to read the editorial of The Tribune July 25, which declared "Early start is key to children's school success." Two years ago, as a candidate for South Bend Community School Corp. Board of Trustees, conversations with neighbors made it clear to me that almost no one knew that kindergarten is optional in Indiana. It was only a slightly smaller group that was aware the state didn't fully fund all-day classes for kindergartners.

Here's how my wife and I found out. After narrowing our options for our daughter's kindergarten year, we met with the Hay Primary Center principal. We wanted our daughter to be in a full-day class and asked him about the possibility.

He smiled a bit wistfully and said, "Any time I'm having a conversation like this with both a mother and father, I can be sure their child will not be in a full-day class." That's because full-day classes were either at magnet schools, which Hay was not, or were U.S. government-funded Title I programs. The principal had correctly assessed that our daughter was not a Title 1 student. Undaunted, we enrolled her there in afternoon-only kindergarten, and have not regretted it ever.

Thanks to the decision by the SBCSC board, principals won't have to say that anymore. But it should have been the state's responsibility to have made that happen. Other school systems unwilling or unable to do what SBCSC did still are still shortchanging their kindergartners.

The editors correctly point out that students can enter formal education as late as age 7 in Indiana. Our daughter turned 7 in March and was evaluated as having the reading skills of a beginning fifth-grader. She was one of four children in her 20-student first grade class judged to have achieved that level of competency. What's the likely outcome for kids just entering our school system at that age?

The National Institute of Early Education Research (of Rutgers University) exists to track what works and doesn't work in the effort to get our children off to good starts. Many states have had available state-sponsored preschool programs for quite some time — some over 10 years. NIEER's research shows that — particularly for children from challenging situations — early structure and nourishment of their innate curiosity pays big dividends.

Our child has many advantages. One of them was two years of private pre-school taught by professionals. Am I completely nuts to think that all kids should have access to resources like that?

Sadly, what I see from our state government is posturing and fingerpointing. In some ways this isn't new — I've seen little progress on this front in my 20 years as a resident. On the other hand, people who haven't done anything to improve conditions, yet who are imposing themselves as "the solution," strike me as throwing an anchor to a drowning person.

We have plenty of our own work to do locally. There's no doubt of that. Were we to have a real partner at the state level, they might realize the same holds true for them.

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