New Orleans sees gains in making children ready for school

Investments to improve the school readiness of children entering kindergarten are working in many New Orleans neighborhoods, according to Deirdre Johnson Burel, executive director of OPEN (Orleans Public Education Network).

There is more work to be done, Burel said, but based on new data she said the interventions can become more targeted.

Burel presented the findings from OPEN’s “Ready, Set, Go” project at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School on Wednesday. The data was recorded by kindergarten teachers of 1,844 students at 38 schools over the 2011-2012 school year.

The Early Development Instrument Community Profile Report measures how kindergarten age children are developing in communities using the following areas: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills and communication skills and general knowledge.

In each area, children are ranked as either “vulnerable, somewhat ready, or very ready.”

The achievement gap begins before children show up to school, Burel said, and through the data presented Wednesday, the specific needs of neighborhoods are more clear, as well as the successes.

Fourteen neighborhoods participating in the data collection project reached saturation, meaning that at least 70 percent of students in those neighborhood reported, which means the data is sufficient for drawing conclusions.

Burel said she hopes to see many more neighborhoods participate in the future.

Burel pointed to neighborhoods where vulnerabilities outpaced readiness, like the St. Bernard area where 28 percent of children rated as vulnerable in the physical health and well-being category, and 24 percent as “very ready.” She called others, like the McDonogh neighborhood on the West Bank, a shining star where the “very ready” ratings significantly outpaced the vulnerabilities in every area.

In terms of showing vulnerabilities in two or more domains, the Freret neighborhood had the highest at 33 percent, with McDonogh as the lowest with 3 percent.

In the Freret neighborhood, 40 percent of the kindergartners showed vulnerabilities in the category of emotional maturity, and 33 percent as vulnerable in social competence. However none of the students in the Freret neighborhood were vulnerable in common and general knowledge and 3 percent were very ready.

Another positive outlier Burel pointed to was the Treme/Lafitte neighborhood, where 63 percent rated very ready in the language and cognitive skills category.

Burel showed the Central City neighborhood, where Mahalia Jackson Elementary is located, as proof that programs like Head Start centers and other organizations providing support to families are making a positive impact. For the Central City students, the “very ready” ratings in every category were about double or more over the vulnerability ratings.

Burel said that children who are very ready when they enter kindergarten are more likely to reach their targeted reading level by the third grade, see a decrease in the need for special education and an increase in high school graduation rates.

“We know that the investment on the front end makes a difference,” she said.

In addition, Burel said, the data looks at a full set of needs — the whole child, and things that can be missed by focusing in only on academic standards. Burel called the data “very exciting” in laying the groundwork for working to ensure that every child shows up ready for school.

Other organizations participating in the effort included the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Baptist Community Ministries, Greater New Orleans Foundation, Institute of Mental Hygiene, and the Entergy New Orleans Foundation.