Education summit emphasizes preparation
To have a good chance at graduating high school, students needs to be able to read proficiently by third grade — and to do that, experts said at a local gathering Wednesday, students need education even before entering kindergarten.
The Early Childhood Summit, put on by the Lee County Partnership for Children, drew about 30 local educators, childcare providers, specialists and others to tackle issues related to ensuring students are as prepared as possible, as early as possible.
One of the most important ways to give students a jump start, said Partnership for Children Executive Director Lyn Hankins, is to put them in the care of well-educated childcare professionals. She said that of Lee County's childcare centers, which the state ranks on a scale of one to five stars based on a combination of its workers' education and the programs offered, many receive four or five stars.
But even so, good preschool educational opportunities for children in Lee County reportedly lag behind.
In 2006, North Carolina began monitoring how many children in childcare programs were enrolled in centers where the lead teachers had some sort of higher education degree. Lee County's rate has never exceeded the state average — although it has risen, from 41 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 61 percent in the 2011-12 school year. The state average for 2011 was 67 percent.
According to Gail Kiker, a Moore County educational consultant who led Wednesday's presentation, that rate is important.
"For years, parents were fine with a grandmotherly type, who would just comfort [the children] and look after them," Kiker said. "But research shows children need more ... [including] a correlation between the education of the provider and the education of the child."
That can be seen in third-grade reading scores, she said. Just as Lee County has been below the state average in the amount of children in childcare centers run by more educated people, it has also been below average in reading scores.
Kiker stressed of Lee County's reading scores from 2011-12, the most recent year for which data is available: "You've got almost a quarter [of students], 23.1 percent, who at the end of third grade are at level one, the lowest proficiency."
Earlier in the day, Jan Hayes, who is chairwoman of the board of directors for the Partnership for Children and directs the local United Way, which supports many education groups, also mentioned third-grade reading scores. Noting their link to graduation rates, she said Lee County has done a good job of helping children improve recently, but the work must continue.
Later, while presenting on a cognitive and linguistic test kindergarteners take before school starts — which gauges the effectiveness of parents and childcare providers in preparing children for school — Kiker said about 70 percent of the 608 Lee County kindergarteners tested were either significantly advanced for their age or within about six months of where they needed to be.
But Carol Chappell, the director of K-5 instruction for Lee County Schools, said that number might be weighted too high because the district didn't test the approximately 150 students whose parents never registered them for school, only dropping them off on the first day with no forewarning. She said those families tend to be lower-income, and students from low-income families tend to not be as prepared.
Kiker's data backed that up, breaking down third-grade reading scores by those who are on free or reduced-price lunch versus those who aren't. For example, 80 percent of third-grade students who didn't qualify for the lunch program read at or above grade level in 2011-12 compared to 52 percent of students who qualified for the lunches. Likewise, 9 percent of students not in the lunch program were reading well below proficient, compared to 29 percent of students who did receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Variations were also noticeable when the data was broken down by other demographics, but Hankins said nothing is a bigger predictor of academic success than childhood poverty — and that anything that can be done to solve that problem is worth exploring.
"Poverty is the number-one factor," Hankins said during a break in the meeting. "It's not the only one, but it's the main one. ... When parents are worried about just surviving, that's all they're thinking of. Education doesn't take precedence. I'm not judging, that's just what happens."