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Once again, just 1 in 4 children are adequately prepared for what's ahead when they enter kindergarten, according to new Year 2 readiness data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Results from the 2018-19 edition of the state's Kindergarten Individual Development Survey — an assessment made by teachers observing students over a 40-day period — are, in some cases, only incrementally different from last year's. Overall, 26 percent of the state's 115,920 kindergartens surveyed met the full gamut of readiness in three key developmental areas — up 2 percentage points from last year's 24 percent.

Despite that, ISBE's director of early childhood cautioned against comparing the results.

"Looking at last year and this year, we're reluctant to compare the two years because it is a different cohort of children," Carisa Hurley said, acknowledging that the survey methods didn't differ greatly from one year to the next.

ISBE officials stressed that the data — which revealed significant achievement gaps by subgroups — does "reinforce the need for equitable supports in school and for equitable access to quality learning experiences before kindergarten."

Some of those gaps are visible locally.

In Champaign's Unit 4, 96 percent of the district's kindergartners were assessed in the three areas — language and literacy, social and emotional development, and math readiness. Of those:

— Some 43 percent didn't meet any of the three readiness standards, while 24 percent met all three.

— Broken down by race, 16 percent of black kindergartners met all three compared with 18 percent for Hispanic, 32 percent for multiracial and 33 percent for both white and Asian kindergartners.

In Urbana, where 82 percent of kindergartners were surveyed:

— Some 49 percent didn't meet any of the three readiness measures, while 14 percent met all three.

— About 7 percent of multiracial students were proficient in all three areas compared with 9 percent for black and Hispanic, 22 percent for white and 23 percent for Asian.

"Many of the bigger takeaways are very similar to last year," said Robin Steans, president of the Chicago-based educational policy nonprofit Advance Illinois. "We have far too few children ready and the divide remains — the gaps with low-income students, English-language learners and others are simply unacceptably deep. We've got a lot of work to do."

'A community issue'

Still, Steans said the release of the data is a step in the right direction.

"I continue to be glad that we have a comparable window into what is going on in kindergarten," she said. "We've got some information that gives us a sense of where our kids are and where some of the gaps are early on. I'm hoping that as this information keeps coming out, we'll figure out 'How do we make it matter?' I think that takes time."

Because the anecdotal data from a student's first 40 days in class isn't reflective of what has happened in the district, the numbers aren't an indictment against school districts, officials said.

Instead, Hurley said, the data can reveal gaps in who has access to pre-kindergarten programs or early-childhood education and who doesn't.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker's new state budget includes $50 million more for early-childhood education, a 10 percent increase that could serve an estimated 4,600-5,800 additional children, officials noted.

While those services are vital, Steans said children's access to pre-kindergarten — or how they fare on the KIDS assessment — doesn't have to be the end of the story, or be the full story itself.

"I think when you see the gaps as kids are starting, you say there are two issues to care about. One is how to get more kids ready. Two is 'What do I do when kids come in to meet them where they are get them into where they need to go?' You want to do both," she said.

The communities most successful at this, she said, have treated it "as a community issue," not just a school district problem.

Chamber program pays off

On the local level, that's been the strategy behind the Champaign Chamber of Commerce's iRead program for Unit 4 kindergartners. It was launched in response to third-grade-level data from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, test, said chamber President Laura Weis.

The results showed students falling behind in reading and math — with gaps exacerbated by race and socioeconomic status. That spurred the creation of a volunteer program that sent adults into the schools to work one-on-one with kindergartners in need.

"No one in the community should be happy with where the numbers are," Weis said. "It has nothing to do with the teachers, but when you have kids coming in that are already behind and there's 25 students to one teacher, it makes it difficult for that student to get the help they need."

The initiative, launched last year at select Unit 4 schools, puts "human resources into the classroom" to help the teacher and the student and close any learning gaps, Weis said. Eighty once-a-week volunteers were split between Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, Dr. Howard Elementary, Garden Hills Academy and Stratton Academy of the Arts — schools Unit 4 determined had the "greatest need," Weis said.

The program generated positive results: Overall, tutored students averaged a 73 percent improvement on letter identification and 36 percent of students more than doubled their percentage increase.

This fall, the Chamber and Unit 4 officials will launch a math version of the program called iCount, in which volunteers will work with four to six students at a time on counting and patterns.

That brings the total volunteers needed for both programs to 200..

"When we came up with the initial 80 (volunteers) needed, that number sounded overwhelming to me as we were first launching, but we came up with 80 pretty quickly," Weis said. "I feel confident we'll get where we'll need to be, but it's going to take a lot of work."

And that's not factoring in a potential expansion to Urbana schools. Weis said the district's incoming superintendent, Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, is the person who "has led the effort at Unit 4, so she is going in very well-versed."

"I anticipate there will be an interest in Urbana when the administration gets its feet wet," she said.

Reporter

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter covering education at The News-Gazette. Her email is ljones@news-gazette, and you can follow her on Twitter (@__lyndsayjones).