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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Three-quarters of Spokane kids are not ‘kindergarten ready’ when they start school, report says

Teacher Erica Uyehara, who teaches kindergarten and first grade, works with a student one-on-one in her classroom at Adams Elementary in South Spokane Thursday, June 6, 2019. A recent study found less than one-quarter of Spokane youngsters were ready for the rigors of kindergarten last fall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Three-quarters of Spokane schoolchildren have fallen behind before they set foot in their first classroom.

According to a statewide study, fewer than one-quarter of Spokane youngsters were ready for the rigors of kindergarten last fall.

The problem is greater in Spokane than in most major districts in the state, and it’s getting worse – the result of deepening poverty, trauma, homelessness and the growing scarcity of affordable preschools and daycare.

A recent report from the state superintendent’s office showed that only 24.3% of youngsters in the Spokane Public Schools district were “kindergarten ready,” meaning most of them did not meet state standards for cognition, language, literacy, math, language and social-emotional maturity.

School districts are left to pick up the pieces, devoting more staffing and expenditures in an effort to make up for lost time.

“Kids are coming in farther behind,” said Adam Swinyard, the associate superintendent in charge of teaching and learning at Spokane Public Schools. “And those schools that are highly impacted by poverty are seeing the most significant impacts.”

Of 34 elementary schools in the district, seven had kindergarten readiness rates of less than 10% last year, according to last year’s assessment by the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, or waKIDS.

Holmes, Lidgerwood, Linwood, Longfellow, Ridgeview, Willard and Woodridge were the schools in that category.

Only three schools – Hutton, Jefferson and Wilson – have been above 40% readiness in each of the last three years.

Overall, among the largest school districts in the state, only Yakima (19.9%) saw worse numbers last year. In Seattle, 62% of incoming kindergartners met the standards. Bellevue and Vancouver were a few percentage points back, while Everett and Tacoma weighed in at 47% and 46%, respectively.

The statewide average is 45.7%.

Kindergarten readiness also is significantly higher in Central Valley (50.8%), Cheney (44.6%), East Valley (42.4%) and Mead (38.4%) than in Spokane.

The gap is widening as Spokane’s kindergarten readiness fell from 30% three years ago, while other communities are holding steady.

The reasons are well-known. Spokane is home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest – and none of the richest.

Spokane County’s median household income is just above $53,000; the statewide average is $71,000. Almost one in four city residents fall below the federal poverty level, which is $25,750 for a family of four.

Meanwhile, the median monthly cost for Spokane County child care centers in 2017 was $806 for toddlers and $715 for preschoolers.

In that context, there’s little room for debate between bread and books.

“I think there’s also a lot of trauma in the community, and mental health concerns as well,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said Tuesday as the district reviewed its annual report of Key Performance Indicators.

The numbers – which Swinyard presented to the school board Wednesday night – were good, for the most part. High school graduation last year reached a record-high 88.7%, and chronic absenteeism was down at the high school level.

“We’ve made great strides of watching really closely when there are warning signs that students are not doing well,” Swinyard said.

Swinyard also noted a sharp rise in math proficiency at the elementary school level. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on that, and we’re seeing it pay off,” he said.

However, there’s an increasing feeling that elementary teachers and administrators are playing catch-up at the kindergarten level.

Readiness levels can vary widely from year to year at a given school, but the general trend has been downward at most buildings.

Among the most striking are Hamblen, where kindergarten readiness fell from 46% to 32% in two years; Madison, which fell from 39% to 21%; Mullan Road, which dropped from 39% to 23%; and Westview, which went from 39% to 20%.

There are good news stories as well. During that same period, Finch went from a district-low 4.2% readiness to 27%.

The work to help students who enter school unprepared catch up has paid off to some extent.

For example, three years ago, overall kindergarten readiness in Spokane was 26.4%, compared to 51.2% in Seattle and 48.3% in Tacoma. However, by the time those children reached third grade, the gap had closed significantly. On average, Spokane third-graders’ math and language arts scores were 15 percentage points behind Seattle and only 5 percentage points behind Tacoma.

The district also hopes to close the gap with smaller K-3 class sizes, which now have been fully implemented.

“That’s credit to our teachers and administrators,” said Swinyard. “There’s a broad acknowledgment in investing in K-3 and making sure that our kids have a great start.”

“Getting those foundational skills is key,” Swinyard said. “If they’re not caught up by fourth grade, then it’s extremely difficult for kids to catch up.”