Chemung County project claims success in prepping kids for school

The eyes of Chemung County — and perhaps beyond — are upon the Class of 2024.

The Chemung County School Readiness Project announced Thursday that its five-year pilot project to better prepare kids for kindergarten is showing big results.

Of the Chemung County children entering kindergarten in 2011 (the Class of 2024), 68.6 percent were judged ready, compared with just 47.5 percent five years earlier.

The project covered children in the Elmira, Elmira Heights and Horseheads school districts.

Randi Hewit, president of the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes, led Thursday’s news conference at Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira. When chimes sounded during the event to indicate a baby was born in the hospital, she ad-libbed and drew laughter: “There’s a baby being born. That baby will be ready for kindergarten.”

With results now in hand, Hewit and others plan to trumpet its success to the community, too.

“We will be using this announcement to launch a public campaign that we can sustain these results and build on them, where 70, 80, 90 percent of kids will be ready for kindergarten in the future. That will set us apart from anywhere in the country,” Hewit said.

The Teacher’s College at Columbia University helped establish the baseline for the results. Researchers from SUNY Albany did the five-year evaluation.

How it works
The project aims to prepare children from birth to age 5 for kindergarten and uses the services of agencies already in place. Its holistic approach includes a free home visit by a nurse to assess the family. It provides training to all child-care providers in the county. It works with health care professionals regarding medical and dental visits and good health habits. It promotes early literacy skills and provides programs to educate parents.

For the project, youngsters were evaluated in eight areas: pre-academic skills of initiative, language/literature, movement/music and science; socio-economic skills of task orientation, behavior control, assertiveness and social skills.

“Literacy is only one piece,” Hewit said, naming off other areas evaluated: “Can the kids sit still? Can they raise their hands? Can they line up? Can they work as a group? Can they function in a team environment?”

Seeing results
Ralph Marino, president of the Horseheads Central School District and a project team member, said, “When I have conversations with our prekindergarten teachers, our kindergarten teachers, they are (saying) it is making a difference in the classroom.”

Don Keddell, a team member and retired assistant superintendent for the Elmira City School District, said the success is not attributable to any one particular strategy. “It’s really the blending of the nurse visitation idea, the idea that you need knowledgeable parents and caregivers. We need to be sure that young people are physically and emotionally healthy.”

The project was born six years ago when a group of local early-childhood professionals decided they lacked a coordinated effort in prepping kids for kindergarten, Hewit said. At the same time, her organization wanted to look beyond giving out small grants and put $1 million into something that would help the community.

She credited Elmira’s Carl Hayden, former state Board of Regents chancellor, with coining “School Readiness” as the goal, and he became chairman of the effort, described as bringing together services already at work in the area.

“If you make life great for young children, they will be ready for school. And kids who are ready for school will be successful, and boom, you have a work force, a healthy, vibrant community,” Hewit recalled Hayden saying.

Hayden told Gannett News Service that when he testifies next month before the governor’s New NY Education Reform Commission, he will ask it to support similar programs statewide.

Costs, savings
The project’s services are open to any child in Chemung County, and most are free. There are subsidies and sliding fee scales for those that carry a charge.

The School Readiness Project has served more than 4,500 children since 2006, at a cost of about $400 per child per year. The Community Foundation and Chemung County each have put up $1 million for the project.

Keddell said national studies have shown that for every dollar invested in early childhood, communities have been able to save from $7 to $14 in social services, criminal justice, remedial education and employment training.

Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli, another team member, said it’s money well-spent, reflecting back on his years working with troubled youths as a probation officer.

“I saw things go well when kids were put in a structured environment. We spent a lot of money to put them there,” Santulli said. “However, I saw in 60 days after discharge, their whole life changed back again to where they were before, only they were two years older. It was just the way the system was designed.

“What makes more sense is sending a nurse, social worker at time of birth to really do an evaluation of the family and what they have and what their needs are,” he said.

Project team members said it will be important to track the performance of students in school to judge the long-term effectiveness of the program.

Hewit said the Community Foundation and Chemung County have agreed to continue funding the project for a year as initial results are evaluated. Other sources of income to continue the program will be sought locally, she said.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Hewit said.