Some solutions in place to close education gap, but is Utah willing to pay for them?

Published: Tuesday, June 26 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Devony Rodriguez, being hugged by family, is a preschool student in Granite School District's high quality preschool program at Hilldale Elementary School in West Valley City. The program operates in 11 at risk schools.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Editor's note: This report is part 3 of "Coming to our Census," a series of reports that takes a careful look at the issues posed by the changing demographics of Utah and the nation.

Related coverage

Part 1: The changing face of Utah - Are we ready to embrace the future?
Part 2: Poll results: Utahns welcome diversity but perceptions don't always match reality
Part 4: Latino students face barriers to higher education
Part 5: Minorities face hurdles in getting health care
Part 6: Immigrants, refugees can choose which aspects of culture to assimilate

Editorial: 'Coming to our Census' series takes needed, critical look at issues posed by Utah's changing demographics

Lists: Poll responses: Benefits of a more diverse population in Utah; Poll results about Census data: Perceptions don't always match reality

KSL coverage: 'Coming to our Census'

WEST VALLEY CITY — When Devony Rodriguez started Granite School District's early preschool program as a 3-year-old, she kept to herself.

"She came in last year very shy, very quiet, no English, didn't really understand anything. Over these two years, she is outgoing, very social and her learning has really been something else," said Lola Dominguez, lead preschool teacher at Hilldale Elementary School.

Child advocates said Rodriguez's experience in the program, which operates in 11 of the district's most at-risk schools, is typical. The program has given preschoolers such a leg up that by the end of third grade, they're performing on par in math and English with peers not affected by poverty, according to an evaluation by Utah State University early childhood education researchers.

"They look exactly like their age-mate peers who were speaking English their whole lives," said Brenda Van Gorder, Granite District's director of preschool services.

Janice Dubno, senior policy analyst for the child advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children, is more direct in her praise of the program:

"They've closed the achievement gap."

The once-shy and retiring Rodriguez is typical of the children who attend the preschool. "We have a lot of these children, the first day, not understanding a bit of English," Dominguez said. "By the end of the year, they are not the same children."

A close look at the learning program could provide answers to what will be needed as Utah's population continues to become more diverse.

To start, the children are taught sign language so students and educators have a common way to communicate. Over time, all learn English, using a curriculum and teaching strategies specifically designed to build the students' vocabularies.

"We started doing explicit instruction with oral language building vocabulary. There were a couple of reasons for that. We know that is the best predictor: High vocabulary equals kids who will become readers," Van Gorder said.

The curriculum also emphasizes pre-math skills, such as learning to count, proper sequencing of numbers and identifying shapes.

The overriding goal is school readiness. "We wanted to make sure the children had all of the pre-academic skills that they needed to be successful in kindergarten so that the kindergarten teachers could start teaching kindergarten instead of having to back up and re-teach things children should have had before," Van Gorder said.

A federal grant helped start the program eight years ago. The curriculum was developed using the best early childhood education practices in California, New York and Texas. "We put a bunch of things together and started collecting data," Van Gorder said.

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