KSL INVESTIGATES

High stakes of kindergarten readiness; what Utah schools are doing to improve student performance

Sep 18, 2023, 10:19 PM | Updated: Sep 29, 2023, 10:22 pm

OGDEN, Utah — Ready for kindergarten used to mean a child turned five by the cutoff date. Now the expectations and stakes are much higher.

“Kindergarten is not what it used to be,” said kindergarten teacher Sarah Birch. “If they’re not at a certain level, then they’re already behind.”

That is why she and fellow teacher Kacee Weaver spent the summer making house calls in Ogden, sitting at kitchen tables to count and rhyme with incoming students.

a child sits at a table with an educator

Sarah Birch and Kacee Weaver spent the summer making house calls in Ogden to help incoming kindergarten students. (Josh Szymanik, KSL TV)

“Children are just not prepared to be coming to school. And when you’re starting at a deficit, making up all those skills can be real difficult,” Weaver said.

Education research shows the probability a child would remain a poor reader at the end of fourth grade if the child was a poor reader at the end of first grade was 88%. That means kindergarten is a narrow window that sets the stage for student success.

Kindergarten proficiency tests, called KEEP, show statewide in 2021-22, 59% of Utah students were ready for school. The numbers vary dramatically depending on demographics. For example, readiness drops to 45% for students who are racial minorities or economically disadvantaged.

In about one-third of Utah’s school districts, fewer than half of students are ready.

“It’s a bit of a tragedy,” Weaver said.

Beyond academics

It isn’t just academics kids are lacking. Kindergarten teachers in several districts say they’re encountering behaviors they’ve never seen.

“We’re seeing some aggression and we’re also seeing kids who aren’t potty trained,” said Jennifer Millett, kindergarten specialist in the Granite School District.

Schools are having to bring in diaper changing stations and bring in parents to help.

“I’m seeing a lot more defiance. You ask a child to sit down, and they’ll just tell you, ‘No,’ ” added kindergarten teacher Holly Duke.

“We’ve had a lot more kids coming to kindergarten who aren’t able to take care of basic needs. We’ve had parents request that we feed kids for them,” kindergarten teacher Erin Butler said.

Teachers who spoke to KSL attribute some of these behaviors to the COVID-19 closures, which kept kids at home and away from social settings during their formative years.

“It is important for those kids to be in the classroom. They need those social skills, they need to be working together with each other,” pre-school instructor Michelle Ortiz said.

“I think it’s just the pandemic, a lot of these kids have not interacted with each other,” said kindergarten teacher Naiby Chan.

Teachers are working hard to teach those missing skills where they can.

In addition to Ogden’s house call pilot program, Salt Lake School District holds extended summer pre-school programs for children who need a boost.

“They need to be reading and writing by the time they leave kindergarten so they can be ready,” Butler said.

Expansion of full-day kindergarten

Another development that has put kindergarten in the spotlight in Utah is the new focus on full-day kindergarten.

Last year, Utah legislators passed funding mechanisms to expand full-day optional kindergarten. Now, 65% of Utah families will have access to full-day, compared to just 34% last year.

“It’s a game changer,” Granite’s Jennifer Millett said.

New data from the Utah State Board of Education shows in schools that already had full-day kindergarten, the percentage of kids leaving “proficient” was 10% higher for kids in full-day versus half-day.

“Ten percent may not sound like many but looking at the big picture – the number of students that that represents, it definitely makes a difference for those students and those families,” said Jared Lisonbee, pre-school education specialist for the Utah State Board of Education.

At the same time, many districts are going to great lengths to help parents realize their power in preparing children for school.

“I feel like parents do overall want what’s best for their children and sometimes they just don’t know what’s available,” Duke said.

Boy sits attentively at a kitchen table

With the help of Ogden’s house call visits, Cesar made excellent progress preparing to start school. (Josh Szymanik, KSL TV)

In Ogden, the house call program tries to bridge that gap. Over the summer, they taught children like Cesar to recognize letters and numbers, while guiding his mom Martha Avalos to resources such as high-quality pre-school and food programs.

By the end of the summer, Cesar made so much progress teachers determined he could skip kindergarten and go directly to first grade.

“It has been a blessing to have them come and be able to identify that my son was more advanced and able to skip a grade. That’s huge,” Avalos said.

“I’m excited to go to school,” says Cesar.

Resources for kindergarten readiness

The Utah State Board of Education and individual school districts have many resources for parents, which include ways parents can help prepare their children.
In English:

In Spanish:
¡Preparados, Listos, Ya!

Utah Education Network offers an early learning online library: Preschool Path.

Utah company, Waterford, offers Upstart, a high-quality, at-home early learning program with free software, hardware and support to families who are interested.

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High stakes of kindergarten readiness; what Utah schools are doing to improve student performance