Southington’s report card; Rallying behind early childhood education

By Lisa Capobianco
Staff Writer
For Southington parent Prajakta Dravid, preparing her four-year-old child for kindergarten is on her top priority list. She sends Atharva to preschool five days a week, receiving daily assessments of his language skills among other skills he must start developing before kindergarten.
Although early childhood educators play a role in her son’s academic development, Dravid said she makes an effort every day to prepare Atharva for kindergarten by becoming more involved. From making a grocery list with Atharva to counting grapes with him to talking with him about what he learned on a daily basis, Dravid has incorporated small activities into her daily routine to help foster Atharva’s problem-solving and literacy skills.
Dravid said she has done this with the help of attending the workshops provided by The Early Childhood Collaborative of Southington (ECCS), a group of concerned educators, parents, teachers and early childcare providers who work together to ensure that all Southington children are ready to learn once they enter school.
“I definitely feel a lot less stressed about sending him to Kindergarten,” Dravid said. “I learned how to be more involved in activities, to get him thinking a lot more.”
Last week, Dravid attended another workshop, hosted by ECCS called, “Southington’s Report Card: How Are Our Families Doing.” ECCS recently completed several months of research which discovered a variety of challenges that families in town face. The group gathered information through surveys, interviews, data reports and focus groups since 2005. ECCS is currently writing a Community Plan to ensure that families can overcome these problems in order to provide the best possible future for their children. A grant from The William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund and The Community Foundation of Greater New Britain made the plan possible.
Jim Williamson, the president of the foundation, said fostering high-quality, early childhood education serves as the foundation’s number one priority.
“It is about helping communities get stronger, and particularly it is helping you, your friends and your neighbors prepare your child for success,” Williamson addressed to the community during the event.
Michelle Slimak, the co-chair of ECCS, said during her presentation that children who do not receive a high-quality, early childhood education have a higher risk of dropping out of school, becoming a teen parent, getting arrested for a violent crime, being placed in special education and never attending college.
“Research shows that the achievement gap appears long before children reach kindergarten,” said Slimak, who is a parent herself. “In fact, it can appear as early as nine months old.”
The research findings interested parents like Dravid. According to ECCS, 83.2 percent of entering kindergarten students had at least one year of preschool experience between 2003 and 2004. However, this rate decreased to 77.9 percent between 2009 and 2010.
ECCS also found that since July 2012, 1,639 Southington children under age 19 were enrolled in HUSKY A health program, and during the 2012-2013 school year, 334 students received a free or reduced lunch, compared to 461 students for the current school year.
“Southington families have less money now than they did in the past,” Slimak said during the presentation. “More people are qualifying for HUSKY, more people are qualifying for free/reduced lunch.”
According to ECCS, low birth weight also serves a problem that Southington families face. Slimak said that the number of babies who weigh less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces has increased in Southington. From 2007 to 2009, an average 8.3 percent of babies born each year had a low birth weight, compared to 7.2 percent from 1999 to 2001. Slimak said babies born with a low birth weigh have a “greater risk for cognitive problems.”
Another finding that struck ECCS dealt with the kindergarten entrance inventory scores. An assessment that examines what children learned before they entered school, the kindergarten inventory takes place each fall, and measures six different areas: creative, personal, physical, language, literacy, and numeracy. Kindergarten teachers score each student on a scale of one to three for each area depending on how consistent he or she demonstrates those skills.
According to ECCS, less than 9 percent of kindergarten students in Southington scored in the first highest quartile. Meanwhile, 18.79 percent of students scored in the second highest quartile and 51 percent of students scored in the third highest quartile.
“Southington is doing better in language, and literacy is also doing better,” Slimak said.
“Southington is not doing well in numeracy at all.”
After the presentation, parents and other members of the community broke up into groups, sharing ideas to help turn early academic success into a reality. Some ideas included making videos for parents on school readiness and potty training, and even offering cooking classes for parents so they can learn how to make healthy meals for their children. Toward the end of the month, the groups will meet again to pull their ideas together, developing strategies on how to implement their ideas in the near future.
Strategies that members of ECCS presented to the community included establishing outreach teams to communicate the importance of early childhood education, engaging community groups and business organizations through Pre-K scholarships, advertising, materials, and sponsorships, as well as offering information to families about kindergarten expectations, and developing support for preschool programs.
“People are not aware of what kindergarten is,” Slimak said. “Now it consists of academic work.”

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