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Idaho’s kindergartners lagging, but catch-up efforts in play in Kootenai County

Kindergarteners carefully glue popcorn to paper Sept. 23, 2004 at Borah Elementary in Coeur d’Alene. Idaho ranks last in the nation in early childhood education participation, but educators are working to narrow the gap. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Kindergarteners carefully glue popcorn to paper Sept. 23, 2004 at Borah Elementary in Coeur d’Alene. Idaho ranks last in the nation in early childhood education participation, but educators are working to narrow the gap. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Idaho’s youngest citizens are getting what their parents have paid for: a slow start in the classroom.

In Coeur d’Alene and across the state, many young children are going straight from the couch to the classroom, without basic skills their peers take for granted.

Thousands of incoming kindergartners can’t count from one to 10, or sound out a few letters of the alphabet.

“Many don’t know their own names,” said Kate Orozco, the director of elementary education for the Coeur d’Alene School District. “Many of our children come in with full reading skills, but some don’t know how to hold a book right side-up.”

Those anecdotes were quantified Thursday in another unflattering assessment of Idaho’s underfunded public education system.

Idaho is tied with North Dakota for last place in the nation in early childhood education participation, with 68 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds not attending preschool, according to the Kids Count Data Book.

That figure for those who don’t attend preschool is 60 percent in Kootenai County. Comparable figures weren’t available for Spokane County, but the overall figure for Washington state is 48 percent.

According to Idaho Education News, 50 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds are unprepared for kindergarten, meaning they can’t recognize colors, sounds or a few letters of the alphabet.

According to some experts, Idaho is getting what it pays for.

“High-quality early learning programs play an important role in preparing children for success,” said Christine Tiddens, community outreach director for Idaho Voices for Children.

However, Idaho is one of only six states that spends no money on prekindergarten programs; the national average cost of basic early education for a 4-year old is about $5,000 a year.

Earlier this year, Education Week magazine reported that Idaho ranked second-lowest in overall education spending at $8,422 per student annually. The national average is $12,526.

“Idaho is missing opportunities to invest in proven measures to secure our state’s economic future,” Tiddens said.

Getting off to a slow start increases the chance that those same 4-year-olds will continue to underperform, studies have shown.

“When 3- and 4-year-olds attend pre-K, they experience higher levels of educational attainment, career advancement and earnings later in life,” Tiddens said.

With help from the community and the district, Orozco and other Kootenai County educators are trying to overcome the odds.

The district offers full-day kindergarten at four of its 11 elementary schools – Borah, Bryan, Fernan and Winton – that were determined to have the highest need, based in part on the number of families participating in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

Beginning in September, the district will pilot tuition-based full-day kindergarten classes at two other schools: Hayden Meadows Elementary and Sorensen Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities.

Participating families will pay a monthly fee to help extend the half-day program to a full day, and a few spots in each class will be covered by scholarships.

The district also works with United Way of North Idaho on early childhood literacy and kindergarten readiness programs.

Another resource is ReadyRosie, a free learning tool for families with children in kindergarten through third grade. It offers videos around literacy and numeracy standards matched to K-3 grade levels, as well as videos to support children’s social and emotional learning.

Opening Books, Opening Doors is a partnership among the school district, the University of Idaho and several community groups. It is a three-year initiative with an ambitious goal: By 2020, all students exiting third grade will meet grade-level reading goals. It’s funded by a $600,000 grant from Innovia (formerly the Inland Northwest Community Foundation). The initiative is one year into the three-year program.

“I can’t say enough about the support they’re giving us,” Orozco said.


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