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More California school administrators gain skills as early-childhood leaders

November 9, 2018
Linda Jacobson
Education Dive

This article is part of a series about First 5 — a tobacco tax initiative in California passed by voters 20 years ago to fund services for young children, from birth to kindergarten age. The series is supported by a University of Southern California 2018 Center for Health Journalism fellowship.

The Cloverdale Unified School District (CUSD) isn’t like many of the other districts in Sonoma County, California. A freeway runs through the middle of town, it doesn’t have a concentration of wineries and tasting rooms, and in past years, most children entering kindergarten didn’t have much experience in preschool.

That last point, however, might not have caught CUSD Superintendent Jeremy Decker’s attention if not for the county’s Road to Early Achievement and Development for Youth (READY) program, which uses a kindergarten readiness assessment to gather information about children’s home language, preschool participation, social-emotional development and “school-ready knowledge.”

Funded by First 5 Sonoma County — one of 58 county agencies created by a 1998 voter-approved tobacco tax to improve health, well-being and learning outcomes for young children — the READY initiative also focuses on helping teachers use the data from the readiness assessments and strengthening connections between K-12 and early learning providers.

“I’m a secondary guy. I never really understood the importance of kindergarten or preschool,” Decker said in an interview. “My superintendent lens was absolutely about graduation. Through First 5, I learned exactly where our shortcomings were.”

While the district offered a small fee-based preschool program, most Cloverdale families that could afford preschool would drive to the more populated community of Healdsburg. Children without such opportunities missed out.

But when Decker saw the data, he worked with a child-care agency to add preschool slots for low-income families. With about 100 children per grade level in the district, there are now almost enough spaces for every child who needs one.

The district also developed a two-week summer transition program for incoming kindergartners who still weren’t attending preschool. And after just one year, it saw a 100% increase in the number of children considered ready for kindergarten.

“When they start on the first day [of kindergarten], they’re not crying. It’s not a shock,” Decker said, adding that now he understands the connection between preschool and 3rd-grade reading performance, or the credits students need for admission to a University of California institution. “It will affect those metrics that we look at.”