How a Lake County early learning program is helping prepare children for kindergarten

Editor's note: Suburban Education Lab is an occasional series focusing on inno­vative programs at suburban schools, often tackling common, universal prob­lems students face.

Knowing your colors, shapes, letters and numbers and being able to play nice with others — these are some of the most common skills educators consider when determining whether a child is prepared for the rigor of kindergarten.

But readiness is also affected, experts note, by less-common factors like the socio-economic backgrounds of students and the challenges they might be facing in their daily lives. Children from poor families with limited English skills are particularly vulnerable, and a program in Lake County is working to help them.

“Students come in really not knowing the basics, such as ... how to interact with peers, how to hang up their coats, stand in line, the unfamiliarity of a school setting, and then you are adding academics,” says Rosa Herrera, who manages the United Way of Lake County's Success by 6 early learning program.

Since Success by 6 was implemented in Waukegan Public Schools in 2006, participants have shown significant improvement — 57% of incoming kindergartners were considered ready in 2018 compared to just 6% in 2006, according to a United Way report.

The program has since expanded to four other Lake County communities. It includes a birth-to-3 component and teaches parents how to become their child's first teacher. It helps children develop physical and cognitive skills crucial to their education. And, in partnership with the Lake County Health Department and One Hope United, it provides weekly home visits from a nurse and caseworker for 105 at-risk families in Waukegan and North Chicago.

“We haven't had enough money to actually hire caseworkers and nurses on the west side of the county,” says Kristi Long, United Way president & CEO, adding that is a future goal. “It is for the families that are most at-risk. They are isolated. They are probably very young parents and most likely single parents.”

Success by 6 aims to build confidence in parents and give them the knowledge they need to help their child succeed.

“Most of these families, they don't understand that reading to (children) every night really helps them,” Long said. “In lower-income families, a lot of the communication is more directive — put that coat on, remove your shoes — whereas in middle-income families the communication is more engaging. Those are things that parents can learn.”

Kindergarten boot camp

At Round Lake Area Unit District 116, United Way hosted its second Kindergarten Countdown Camp earlier this summer at Pleviak Elementary School in Lake Villa, providing 44 at-risk children who have little or no preschool experience training on basic skills and reading.

“In our area, we have 3,000 kids (whose families) can't afford preschool, so programs like this are priceless,” said Jeff King, principal of Pleviak, an all-kindergarten building with about 500 students.

Students who went through the camp are showing “big growth” and retaining that growth as they enter kindergarten, King added.

The six-week, half-day camp focused on readiness skills, such as students' ability to write their names, recognize and identify shapes, colors, numbers and letters, their familiarity with books and rhyming and their fine motor skills. It also emphasizes social and emotional skills by getting students used to a classroom setting where they follow directions and play with others.

The United Way study found that 21% of children performed well on eight key skills the program measures at the onset. That number jumped to 62% by the end of camp.

These observations come against the backdrop of the state's more-intense comprehensive Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, which reported in June that only about one in four Illinois children enter kindergarten fully ready to learn.

Long said understanding basic classroom etiquette, developing confidence and knowing how to interact with the teacher are critical to preparing students to start their schooling.

The United Way camps strive to address these objectives by teaching parents:

• How to navigate their school systems.

• School physical health requirements.

• Readiness skills they and their children can work on during the summer.

• The importance of attendance.

They also provide resources such as school supplies, educational materials, local family resources and access to free summer meals.

United Way aims to provide kindergarten readiness calendars to every school district in Lake County. The agency also provides resources to local day cares, libraries, park districts, school districts and nonprofits to support students in their communities.

It offers a pop-up preschool in the park during the summer in partnership with Round Lake Park District. Its early learning clubs in the Round Lake area help parents and children understand basic prekindergarten skills.

The agency now is looking into securing grants from private and corporate foundations to expand the program to other schools.

“We definitely have the template and we know what works,” Long said. “We fully recognize there is more that needs to be done in all the communities that we are in and that there are other communities that need this support, as well.”

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  Teacher Martha Espinoza works with kids in the Kindergarten Countdown Camp at Pleviak Elementary School in Lake Villa. The camp is part of the agency's Success by 6 program that helps prepare at-risk Lake County students for kindergarten. Paul Valade/
  Sofia Astudillo claps along to an alphabet song during a Kindergarten Countdown Camp at Pleviak Elementary School in Lake Villa. Paul Valade/
  United Way's Kindergarten Countdown Camp teacher Sarah Breen works with students at Pleviak Elementary School in Lake Villa. Paul Valade/
  Participants in United Way's Kindergarten Countdown Camp at a Round Lake Area Unit District 116 school were sent home with goodies, including a backpack full of school supplies and a kindergarten readiness calendar. Paul Valade/
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