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Lane County KITS helps kids get ready for kindergarten

IMG 0416wIt's the first week in August – week five of Lane County's Kids in Transition to School program – and this week's theme is sportsmanship. A dozen wiggly future kindergartners sit in a circle with their teachers, passing a small ball back and forth as they chant: "The wonder ball goes round and round, rolling fast right over the ground."

As the chant continues, most of the kids begin to focus more intently on the ball. After all, if it's closest to you at the end of the chant, you're out!

This time around, a little boy is caught with the ball. “Oh well,” he says, along with his teachers, as he moves out of the circle, mimicking an appropriate response to having lost the game.

Sportsmanship is one of the many skills these children will learn over eight weeks this summer before they start kindergarten. The hope of their teachers is that they will arrive on their first day of school ready to succeed, having practiced important self-regulation skills and learned the conventions of a classroom, like standing in line and raising your hand. The program also jumpstarts their early literacy skills and allows them to socialize with other children and teachers.

In addition to this class for children, the Lane County KITS program includes a weekly class for their parents and caregivers. In these sessions, the group discusses early literacy and behavior strategies that the parents can then try at home and report back on the following week.

Studies of the KITS program have shown very positive results: they’ve shown it helps children make significant gains in early literacy and self-regulation skills, both during the summer and throughout kindergarten. The program serves students in eleven schools in six different school districts in Lane County. And the United Way of Lane County – which helped to start the program – was recently awarded a five-year federal Social Innovation Fund grant of $2 million to expand the program further. This adds greatly to the funding Lane County received in 2014 through the state's Kindergarten Partnership and Innovation Fund, some of which went to support KITS.

KITS started in 2010, after the United Way of Lane County set an ambitious goal: that the majority of children in the county would arrive at kindergarten with basic literacy skills and adequate social and emotional development by 2020. United Way leaders were seeking early learning and parent engagement programs and discovered a project that the Oregon Social Learning Center, a non-profit research organization, was working on to prepare foster kids for school. It was a great fit and the two organizations teamed up.

Dr. Katherine Pears, senior research scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center, developed KITS and continues to investigate its impact. She says that the program has a few features that distinguish it from other interventions for young children. “It’s targeted on school readiness, just during that transition period,” Pears says. She says it also focuses on kids and parents, helps to fill the summer services gap, and is accessible to the most at-risk kids. “It’s very accessible, because we provide transportation, food, translation services and child care on days when the parent group meets,” she says.

While the kids finish their game and start to wash up for a snack, their parents and caregivers are meeting down the hall. This week their discussion has focused on how to encourage positive behavior at home, and attendees are reporting in on strategies they tried out this week.

One man talked about teaching his grandson about safety. “When I bring him here and we get out of the car, I say ‘Okay, what do we do next?’ He says: ‘We look both ways.’ I ask him every time we come and he remembers pretty well now.”

Pears says that the inspiration for the parent and caregiver group sessions was what she heard from kindergarten teachers. “Teachers said that they can teach literacy skills and catch kids up there, but kids need to already have self-regulation. And what builds that? Positive parenting and involvement.”

KITS has gotten a lot of attention lately due to its impact on the people it serves. Pears has conducted two randomized efficacy trials of KITS – each study included a control group of kids and families who did not attend KITS and an experimental group who did. In addition to gains in early literacy and self-regulation skills, kids who attended KITS were less aggressive in the spring of their kindergarten year. Adults who attended KITS were more effective in parenting during the summer and more involved in their child's education during kindergarten.

The KITS program has expanded from just two schools in 2010 to eleven now, but its incredible results mean demand for the program is high in the county.

The United Way’s new $2 million federal grant, from the Corporation for National and Community Service, will help meet this county-wide demand. The organization will identify and award funding to organizations that can implement the KITS program at schools throughout the county. The United Way is also raising matching funds to commit to KITS.

"The grant will help break down barriers to implementing the program more widely and foster growth," says Dr. Pears. Barriers like a lack of tools and manuals, and funding for ongoing technical assistance for those implementing the program.

This technical assistance is of critical importance. Chris Parra, deputy superintendent in the Bethel School District where KITS is operating at several schools, led the effort to launch the program in the district. "Taking a research program and condensing it for a Bethel-owned program was difficult. Technical assistance was essential for us, and we will continue to need the support in the coming years," Parra says.

Other communities in Oregon are offering similar kindergarten transition programs, including Early Works sites at Earl Boyles Elementary in Southeast Portland and Yoncalla Elementary in rural Douglas County. All three communities are part of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national collaboration working to ensure all children are reading at grade level by third grade. School readiness is one of the Campaign’s three key focus areas.

At Earl Boyles, the program is part of Multnomah County's Early Kindergarten Transitions network. The Children’s Institute’s Andreina Velasco, Early Works site liaison at Earl Boyles, teaches the parent portion of the program.

“Parents who participate have an opportunity to get acquainted with the school and staff, as well as bring home tools to support learning at home,” Velasco says. “Above all, though, our goal is to start building a partnership with families and that they feel supported as their child’s first and most important teacher.”

This summer, Yoncalla Elementary hosted a kindergarten transition program for the first time. While attendance was small, Yoncalla kindergarten teacher Kaaron Lyons saw an immediate impact. “By the first day I could see it was so important and valuable,” Lyons says. “It gave me insights I didn't know. For example, the majority of the group didn't know their colors, so I’m able to have that information as I plan my first weeks.”

Lyons was recently able to visit the KITS program in Lane County and came away inspired for next year, particular after seeing the parent and caregiver group discussion. “One of my main focuses this year will be helping parents feel really engaged and have ownership of their kid’s education,” she says.

The KITS program materials and implementation tools will be available soon, as well as opportunities for organizations in Lane County to host the program. Find out more on the KITS website at kidsintransitiontoschool.org.

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