School officials say many students entering kindergarten unprepared
State education leaders are about to announce plans to revamp Louisiana’s sprawling pre-kindergarten programs.
“The ultimate aim is to have a greater number of kids ready for kindergarten when they walk in the door,” said Jessica Baghian, deputy chief of staff for the state Department of Education, on Monday.
However, just what the plan will look like is sparking concerns, including whether classroom standards will be standard for public and private classrooms.
The changes stem from a bill called the Early Childhood Education Act that was one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s priorities and breezed through the Legislature earlier this year.
It is supposed to overhaul a system that critics contend is a confusing array of classes with varying standards, costs and successes — and too few students entering kindergarten ready to learn.
“Now, only 52 percent are entering kindergarten ready to engage in kindergarten material,” Baghian said.
State Superintendent of Education John White, who is set to unveil a proposed framework of the new system Oct. 17, said last week that the large number of ill-prepared 4-year-olds entering kindergarten “is not a tolerable situation.”
He said that trend sheds light on the large number of third-graders who struggle with math and English on iLEAP, a skills test in which the bar for achievement is set at modest levels.
Even with pre-K classes, state officials have said, about one in three public kindergarten students fails to reach the fourth grade on time.
White is set to spell out the plans to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is supposed to play a major role in crafting the changes.
Under the law, BESE also is required to hammer out a definition of kindergarten readiness.
The panel is required to establish performance targets for children younger than 3 and academic standards for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds.
BESE also will set up an accountability system for publicly funded early childhood education programs, including state-assigned letter grades on how students are faring.
Several advisory groups also are involved in crafting the new pre-K rules, including the Child Care Association of Louisiana.
“In general, we are a strong supporter of overhauling the complete early childhood sector in Louisiana,” group President Wyatt Graves said.
But Graves said he has not been told about details of the plan, including whether association recommendations will be followed.
He said that, among other things, the Child Care Association favors using the same standards at all age levels whether the schools are public or private.
“Right now, the public schools providing care for 4-year-olds receive more money and less restrictions than the private child care system, which serves the same children,” said Graves, who lives in Denham Springs.
The association includes about 600 members, including about 300 programs and 300 individuals who work in the field.
About 45,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in public pre-K programs. The state has about 65,000 4-year-olds.
Education experts have known for years that pre-kindergarten programs have a huge impact on how students fare in kindergarten and beyond.
Conversely, children who enter kindergarten behind their peers often never catch up.
The issue sparked controversy at BESE last year amid a report that showed seven state and federally funded pre-K programs operate in Louisiana, spending $1,726 to $7,200 per child.
Exactly what the state expects children to learn in the classes is unclear, as well as how much value taxpayers are getting from their investments, according to figures provided by the state Department of Education.
Chas Roemer, a member of BESE who lives in Baton Rouge, said nearly $350 million a year was spent in state and federal funds on pre-K classes.
BESE is set to vote on the proposed new prekindergarten system in December. The plan is due to lawmakers March 1.