Elkhart County residents meeting during a focus group in order to discuss concerns related to early childhood education and kindergarten readiness. Photo provided
Elkhart County residents meeting during a focus group in order to discuss concerns related to early childhood education and kindergarten readiness. Photo provided
ELKHART — Horizon Education Alliance (HEA), Crossroads United Way, Community Foundation of Elkhart County and The Source Elkhart County are looking at kindergarten readiness scores and how to improve them with enFocus.

“Our kids are not scoring as well as we would like them to score,” enFocus Innovation Fellow Rosannah Mack said. “In fact, more than half of them are not ready based on those skills.”

In the fall, teachers assess six nonacademic factors to school readiness, including physical readiness like holding still and playing well with others.

Mack explained that in regards to childcare and early learning, teachers can tell on the first day of school, which students have attended preschool and which have not. Teachers told them that students will often be caught up by the end of fifth grade.

“It sounded to me when we interviewed them that there is a little extra time that has to be spent on some of those things that could have been learned in preschool instead of hitting the gate with what needs to be done in the kindergarten year,” Mack said.

Elkhart County is generally middle or lower in other indicators revolving around education, Mack said, but the state of Indiana does not have a standardized kindergarten readiness evaluation system, so HEA has been developing one of its own. HEA’s assessment said that as much as 58% of kindergartners appear to not be ready for kindergarten, because they did not meet the six indicators.

“The pandemic brought this to the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Mack said. “There’s a lot of grant dollars and support all over not just Indiana, but the United States for supporting early childhood and families. Everybody’s sort of in it together at this moment.”

Despite that, Mack said it’s an issue that’s been a problem for a long time. In fact, in 2017 only 38% of Elkhart County kindergartners met all six indicators, meaning 62% did not. It’s an improvement, but not enough.

“We realize that it’s big,” Mack said. “It’s systematic. It’s not just the school’s problem, business, or childcare problem. It’s bigger.”

The groups brought in national experts from Tamarack company and local innovation organization enFocus to discover why and create change in Elkhart County. Organizations reach out to enFocus to help them with projects by working on the aspects they don’t have the time or resources to complete themselves.

In fall and winter of 2021, after the numbers were gathered, stakeholders began to meet in order to determine what Elkhart County looked like and what it should look like. The main stakeholders at meetings were parents.

“The lead partners really want parents to be at the center — they’re our kids, right?” Mack said. “Parents in Elkhart County want to be involved, they want to do what’s best for their children.”

They sat with nine mostly parent focus groups to determine what parents believe to be the pitfalls of kindergarten readiness in their homes and communities.

“There was a lot of insurance issues,” Mack said. “They wanted help navigating insurance and Medicaid and those situations, but even parents with business or commercial insurance had trouble knowing what was going to pay when and navigating all of that.”

Another concern parents expressed is knowing what appropriate child development and meeting milestones look like.

“The parents would say ‘I go to my doctor for some of these questions to be answered, but I only get 10 minutes with them and sometimes it’s a pamphlet that’s given out so quick and I don’t get these questions answered,” Mack added.

Parents also told focus group leaders that they couldn’t get seats for their children at daycares.

“The childcare and early learning focus group is really looking at how you support new childcare providers as businesses coming up into the system so that we can open more seats and have more availability for kids to get quality childcare and good preschool and early learning before they move on to kindergarten,” Mack said.

Parent focus groups more specifically expressed concerns about finding childcare that supported their family values, she said.

“Rural is much different than what City of Elkhart values in childcare,” she said. “That’s a unique thing about Elkhart County, but there aren’t enough childcare seats that fit those requirements for parents.”

Family support was also addressed. CAPS, Oaklawn and The Source were topics of discussion.

Housing and safe places to play also came up in most focus groups.

“All of them wanted something for their kids to do for free in the winter,” Mack continued.

In the summertime, safety in neighborhoods, where parents didn’t feel safe going to the community parks, or feel they had safe places to live including risks of lead poisoning, the cost of housing, transportation, and more were addressed.

“If you don’t have the transportation you can’t get to the doctor’s office; you can’t go to a job interview. If you don’t have childcare, you can’t go to a job interview; so how do you get a job without childcare that isn’t available without transportation?” she said. “It just becomes a really big-system, society issue.”

In May, enFocus met with childcare, healthcare and school administrators and teachers to set up action teams, which are working this summer to decide strategies.

They know they’ll focus on three basic areas: maternal and childhood health, childcare and early learning, and family support, and set up action teams for each area. The action teams will have three sessions over the summer and then in late October or early November, they’ll meet with the community to discuss their findings.
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