Schools connecting with families well before kindergarten

By Abby Spegman, Associated Press | Posted - Jan. 15, 2016 at 8:50 a.m.



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BEND, Ore. (AP) — Francesca Cima is just 7 months old, but she is already a Rosland Rocket.

Last year, Rosland Elementary School in La Pine began distributing gift boxes to expectant moms or those with newborns, with books for baby and parent (about playing with your child at different stages of growth and important learning milestones), a toy and a onesie stamped with the school's mascot.

"It was a really sweet gesture," Francesca's mom, Rebecca Cima, of La Pine, said Tuesday. "It definitely lets you know that they're open to helping you, and it gives you a way to break through if you did have questions."

That's the idea. Rosland is among a group of Central Oregon schools trying various strategies to reach future students and their parents before kindergarten to make sure they're ready when the time comes. It is part of a larger push in the region and across Oregon to think about education outside of K-12.

"Really, it's that whole idea that the relationship we have with kids and the community doesn't have to wait till they're 5," said Rosland Principal Rochelle Williams. "We want students to come to school ready."

Rosland hosted an early learning fair for families of preschoolers last spring so students could see the school and meet their teachers months before the first day of class. This year, Rosland introduced rolling kindergarten registration, where families can sign up throughout the year before their children start school.

Kendra Coates is the director of pre-K to third grade education at the High Desert Education Service District. This year, she is working with principals at about 10 schools in the region on outreach efforts to promote school readiness and better understanding of child development.

"It's an invitation to engage with their community school earlier rather than later," Coates said. "If you look through the lens of school readiness, that is something that's nurtured over many years."

One example: Students from low-income families tend to arrive at kindergarten with smaller vocabularies than their peers, educators say. But what if those parents knew to talk to their children and ask open-ended questions instead of yes-or-no questions to boost speech and language development?

"If they knew that made a difference and could help their children, they would," said Lora Nordquist, assistant superintendent at Bend-La Pine Schools. She said schools and parents should be partners in education, even before students start kindergarten. "How can we work together and learn from each other in the children's best interest?"

Then there's the matter of feeling comfortable at school. Juniper Elementary School in Bend hosts story time for preschoolers on the last Wednesday of each month; afterward, little ones can stay for lunch in the cafeteria alongside kindergartners.

Terrebonne Community School has a Welcome Center for parents of young children to learn about the school, and once a week moms with 2- and 3-year-olds meet there for coffee and a playdate.

"It's a way to try and help people understand the K-12 system better and get comfortable with having their kids come to school," said the school's principal, Trevor Flaherty. "When I dropped my daughter off for kindergarten that very first day, I was scared to death, and I'm in the system. What does that say for people not in the system?"

The ultimate outreach effort may be for schools to actually offer preschool. This fall, schools in Bend, Redmond, Terrebonne and Tumalo started limited programs; other districts are looking at adding preschool or partnering with providers in their area, Coates said.

Bend's preschool program at Bear Creek Elementary School is paid for using federal funds. It is designed for children living in the boundaries of high-poverty elementary schools, though students were not selected based on family income.

Nordquist said the district is considering adding a tuition option at Bear Creek and offering preschool at Rosland this fall for south county students under Preschool Promise, a new state program designed to expand access to preschool.

"We have not typically been thinking about our kids until September when they show up at our doors after they turn 5 years old," Nordquist said. But that is changing now, slowly. "They're ours, really, from the day they're born."

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Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Abby Spegman

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