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Local

DeKalb's Early Learning Center works toward getting 'the whole child' ready for school career

DeKalb’s Early Learning Center works toward preparing ‘the whole child’

DeKALB – Lisa Gorchels riffled through the contents of a Kindergarten Pack filled with play-dough, books and colorful worksheets. She said the packs are one of DeKalb School District 428’s new strategies to make sure children are ready for school once they enter kindergarten.

Gorchels, executive director of the Early Learning Center, has been with the district for 29 years and said expectations of a 5-year-old when they enter school has changed over the past decade.

“It’s a general academic readiness,” Gorchels said Friday. “We’ve moved away from really play-based philosophy in kindergarten to a pretty rigorous academic stance, so people are really talking about do we need to bring back more of a balance to that kindergarten year? I think yes, we do.”

The 2019-20 school year for the Early Learning Center, 1515 S. Fourth St., annexed to Huntley Middle School, has just begun, and instructors are working to adjust curriculums to address the ongoing goal of preparing children for their school careers. A June report by the Illinois State Board of Education showed that 22% of children entering kindergarten in District 428 are considered “ready” (39% are not), and that includes surveying readiness in three different areas. New kindergartners were 20% ready in math (basic counting with an understanding of quantities), 36% ready in language literacy (basic communication, understanding story telling and inflections) and 52% ready socially and emotionally (their ability to express basic emotions and interact with peers).

The report showed that 37% of Sycamore School District 427 students were ready for kindergarten in zero developmental areas, while 28% were ready in all three developmental areas. In Genoa-Kingston School District 424, 13% were ready in all three developmental areas, while 41% were not ready in any of the three areas.

The study also shows that other factors can affect a child’s readiness, such as being a dual-language learner and socioeconomic status.

What does that mean, exactly? Amy Luckner, assessment, research and multi-tiered system of support coordinator in her fifth year with the district, said the data provides a good framework for moving forward.

“We have a kind of saying: ‘Data aren’t good or bad, they just are,’ ” Luckner said. “It gives us a way of quantifying these skills that our students have, and it tells us what they’re ready to learn.”

Part of pre-K programming is to begin developing a love of reading, a basic understanding of math, language, and behavior early on, so that once children enter kindergarten, they’re able to hit the ground running, Luckner said.

Luckner said pre-K programs measure if a child can recognize the right-side-up orientation of a book, understand quantities or basic counting, and cognitive and behavioral patterns such as interacting with peers, expressing yourself when you’re angry or sad, developing manners when eating, etc.

“One of the things they were really aiming for in this assessment was the whole child picture,” Luckner said.

Students at the Early Learning Center (3 to 5 years old) began classes Aug. 20. The center has nine classrooms, all with half-day classes. Six classes (including one bilingual Spanish class) welcome 20 children in the morning and 20 in the afternoon. The other three are for students who have special needs, Gorchels said, and see 10 children in the morning and 10 after lunch.

Kindergarten Packs (provided to District 428 by a $5,000 grant from the DeKalb County Community Foundation) are one of the key components to the efforts to strengthen early childhood literacy in the district, and were handed out to all families with participating children in April. The packs are full of items that teach fine and gross motor skills, such as play-dough and shapes (what Gorchels calls “manipulatives”). There are also worksheets to practice tracing outlines of patterns, crayons, books and dry-erase boards.

“The assessment has really helped highlight the needs that we have prior to when our kids get here,” Luckner said. “There’s a certain level of things we can’t control, but [it’s about] figuring out how we can have access to our families before they get there.”

As part of her role in the Early Learning Center, Gorchels conducts home visits for those in her preschool programs, because one of the ways District 428 staff are addressing kindergarten readiness is to assess truancy issues in the district.

“I do a home visit if there’s something the parents need help with,” Gorchels said. “How can we help you get to school? How can we help you get the resources you need to meet your basic needs as a family?”

Gorchels said the district also enjoys fruitful partnerships with 4Cs, the DeKalb Public Library, the Regional Office of Education, Adventure Works and the DeKalb County Community Gardens.

“We’re always looking at how do we get books into the hands of our youngest from the time they are born until they go on in life?” Gorchels said.

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