School readiness task force tackles child expectations

Now that Spread the Words – Read by 3rd is underway, its committee members face new challenges.

The campaign hones in on three separate target areas: summer learning loss, school readiness and attendance.

Members of the school readiness task force, Carrie Sodders and Heidi Pierson, said their focus area is the hardest to nail down because it is such a nebulous idea. The group faces the challenge of establishing a common set of social and academic benchmarks for children 5 years old and younger.

“What does it mean to come to school ready to learn?” Sodders said. “Learning doesn’t start in kindergarten.”

Pierson said a large part of her job is establishing a public presence letting parents know what standards their child must meet before they enter kindergarten.

Using Iowa early learning standards, which aligns with the state’s core curriculum, preschool teachers, and others caring for young children, assess children’s ability to hit targets needed to perform adequately academically. The idea is that if children start school ill-equipped to learn to read, by time they reach third grade, they will be too far behind to catch up.

Sodders said the program emphasizes language and literacy skills. Being ready to learn requires children to be able to do more than being able to recognize letters.

“You can have the skill, but you have to be able to use it at the right time,” Sodders said.

The task force is now in the process of establishing a concrete set of standards that are easy to understand and strengthen. Those studying the children’s behavior look at the overarching pattern. For instance, if a child follows directions from an adult 10 out of 11 times over a week, they clearly have the ability to do so, and the observer can note that the child has that ability.

Pierson, who is the program manager for the Martha Ellen Tye Foundation, said each task force has a month devoted to the focus area. April is school readiness month, and she said some outreach projects are in the works, including book drives and coordinating with professionals who often interact with children, such as doctors.

The Reach out and Read program, where doctors talk to parents about the developmental importance of reading to a child and provide them books, is just one example of such an effort. The city has already distributed two-sided informational pamphlets – one side in English and the other in Spanish – in water bills mailed throughout the area.

Lindsey Upah, Spread the Words-Read by Third coordinator, said support of the program is growing, and she receives calls from people daily wanting to help.

“As this thing grows, we are going to see a lot more need,” she said. “We always need new ideas and fresh faces.”

The third grade reading initiative earned Marshalltown All-America City distinction in 2012.

For more information, contact Lindsey Upah at 641-752-7162 ext. 155.