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Juneau booming in kindergarten readiness

Posted: February 26, 2012 - 12:12am

Juneau’s kindergarten readiness scores in reading are booming. So much so the city is now above the state average, instead of lagging behind as it has for many years.

The Alaska Department of Education & Early Development implemented the Alaska Developmental Profile three years ago, requiring all kindergartners or students entering public school for the first time in first grade to be tested.

Those three years of data show a small gain statewide. Joy Lyon, director of the Association for the Education of Young Children — Southeast Alaska, said she decided to take a look at how Juneau is doing and revealed the results to a premier of a new film on Friday.

“Juneau has increased our early literacy for kindergartners 10 percent,” she said. “This group of children, imagine their third-grade reading scores. Imagine in the high school, graduation rates up 10 percent. These are the kids that are going to be moving on up and be successful.”

Also notable about Juneau’s scores — every single category evaluated is up from three years ago and every single category is above the state average. The categories include eight sub-sections in these three categories: social and emotional development, approaches to learning, communication, language and literacy.

That’s exciting news for AEYC and it’s partners, who have been working to improve kindergarten readiness.

Lyon said most people think because Juneau has so many well-educated residents, their children would have strong developmental skills going into kindergarten.

“Our children have been lagging in kindergarten readiness in state averages for several years,” she said. “Now we are quite well above the state averages.”

Lyon said Juneau is on the right track. In 2009, only 70 percent of children entering kindergarten in Juneau were “kindergarten ready.” Lyon said that sounds like passing, but that meant 30 percent of them were failing and would struggle to thrive. Now, that number is 20 percent at-risk, with 80 percent ready. Lyon said their goal is to have 90 percent entering kindergarten with skills necessary to succeed. She said there always will be children with genetic learning disabilities who will need extra support.

Even more exciting news for Juneau, Lyon said, is Juneau has seen almost the highest gains in the state. She took a look at results for each breakdown of school districts with 100 or more kindergartners. The only district to make stronger gains than Juneau was the North Slope Borough.

“Which we are going to find out what they are doing,” Lyon added.

One woman who attended the developmental film premiere said North Slope has a universal pre-K program.

Lyon said there has been a lot of work going on in Juneau.

“It’s been a ground swell of energy and collaboration that we’ve been doing the last three years,” she said. “Making sure every child gets all of the early support and early learning they need to be successful in kindergarten and later in life.”

One program that has been highly impactful, Lyon said, is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. That program now has 1,400 students enrolled, which delivers a new book to each child every month. Since the program started in Juneau, 60,000 books have been delivered.

Friday’s event wasn’t focused so much on the results of the data, however. AEYC hosted a premiere for the new film “Baby on Track,” which is tailored to Alaska’s diverse culture and shows six simple tools parents should use to make sure their baby’s brain develops to its fullest potential. The film is produced by Best Beginnings, an advocate for early learning in Alaska.

It focuses on a simple model of basically communicating and interacting with a young child.

The six steps spell out TRACKS — Talk, Respond, Ask questions, Connect, Keep at it, Sing and tell stories.

Lupita Alvarez, who has worked with young children for 15 years, spoke at the premiere. She said that the most important years of development happen within the first six years of life — but the most critical are within the first three.

“Those things that would naturally happen are not happening today,” she said. “There is an issue of awareness of young parents about how they influence the lives of their own kids. We need to educate parents that this is really important. The simple act of telling a child what you are doing as you are changing their diaper. Parents are busy, they are tired, they are trying to get to work and doing all these other things. Something like being with their child isn’t happening.”

She said parents tend to use technology as a baby sitter. So when a parent comes home and makes dinner, they will sit the child in front of the television while doing so, instead of bringing the baby into the kitchen and talking with the baby about what they are doing.

The film stated children have more than 100 billion neurons in the brain, with as many as 700 connections being made every second when fully engaged.

“Children have to feel safe in order to learn,” the film said. “Every word is new to the child. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying. ... Tell them what you’re doing. Don’t answer for them. Wait and hear what they say. Most parents are surprised at what they say.”

Eye contact, music and signing are also important for these connections.

Assembly Member Mary Becker said the community has done a good job putting effort into the “read to your child” campaign, but perhaps it’s time to also add an awareness campaign about talking to children.

Alvarez said that’s where the concern with the overabundance of technology comes in. Indeed, part of the film showed a young mother wired into an MP3 player, with the baby sitting next to her on the couch in a carrier — no interaction.

One woman said a lot of parents she sees are in survival mode — trying to deal with finding a job or some other crucial issue in keeping their family and lives going. She had a concern about the movie because it showed families who weren’t in that survival mode.

“When they’re in that state (survival mode) they’re not going to be able to bond and work with their child,” she said. “They are wondering when and if they’re going to get a job to put food on the table. They’re not engaging with their child. They’re watching TV, looking for a way to escape.”

For more on AEYC see www.aeyc-sea.org.

For more on Best Beginnings and the film, visit www.bestbeginningsalaska.org.

For more on the Imagination Library see imaginationlibrary.com.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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