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

Published: Tuesday, June 26 2012 12:29 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.

Mark Innocenti, director of the Early Intervention Research Institute at USU, said program evaluation suggests the program has been particularly productive among Latino children.

"It really did have a very strong impact on children who spoke a lot of Spanish at home. There were consistently strong outcomes three or four years out of the preschool program. They seem to be doing quite well with early high quality preschool support," Innocenti said.

This is significant considering that historically, Latino children have had lower high school graduation rates than their peers and typically post some of the lowest average scores on standardized achievement tests. State education officials said, however, those trends are improving through eighth grade, due in part to other initiatives.

Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for instructional services for the Utah State Office of Education, said the Granite School District program complements statewide efforts that are also improving student achievement.

When the state's K-3 reading program began in 2005, just 77 percent of Utah eighth-graders scored proficient or above proficient. In 2011, the figure jumped to 90 percent, Hales said.

"This upward trend holds true for four major race/ethnicity categories: American Indian, Caucasian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students," Hales said.

The program targets school districts and schools with the highest numbers of K-3 students reading below grade level. It also targets districts and schools with large numbers of poor children.

Other strategies that are improving outcomes include an optional extended-day kindergarten program, ongoing teacher training, using data to inform instruction and ongoing adoption of new standards and assessments. 

The question remains, as the population changes, will there be money and political will to implement these or similar programs, or will an achievement gap widen?

Already in Salt Lake City, half of preschool-age children are minorities. Population projections show a steady climb in the minority population with it reaching 40 percent of Salt Lake's population by 2050. Statewide it will reach 30 percent of the population. And much of the population will be driven by births.

"I think about (changing demographics) every day. It is dramatic. I know there will be a tipping point we can't maintain what we're doing based on existing demographics and existing resources," Hales said.

Pam Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business, said the 2010 Census suggests new strategies are needed to deal with the state's diverse learners.

"Our class sizes are the biggest in the nation. We could kind of get away with that because we had this really homogenous population and we had a really high level of parental involvement," Perlich says.

Hales said reducing class sizes would help address many issues but Utah's public school system simply cannot afford it. "I don't think we'll ever get around to that," she said.

One of the state's greatest challenges, Hales said, is convincing policymakers that once a child achieves proficiency, resources are needed to ensure their further progress.

She likens it to treating diabetes. Just because the disease is under control does not mean someone should quit using insulin.

"What our data shows is, students' 'at-riskness,' if you will, does not go away," Hales said.

There must also be sufficient funding for ongoing training for teachers.

"If you're ever going to retool people, you have to retrain them. That's a lot less expensive than class size reduction," Hales said.

Hales said it is imperative that lawmakers channel resources to meet the needs. It is perhaps more important that all Utahns view the education of its children as an investment in the state's future.

"It's the lack of an education that's expensive. Education is an investment. When you don't have the skills and the know-how you need, that's when it becomes an expense," she said.

Meeting these challenges will impact the state's economic future. But the challenges of meeting the needs of a more diverse school population also pose moral questions, she said.

"Are we (the school system) up to it? Is our community? Will we invest what we need to?"

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said the interests of children and financial wherewithal of the state would be better served by investing in early childhood education. Osmond sponsored legislation during the 2012 Legislature to create and fund a $5 million high quality preschool pilot program patterned after the Granite School District model. 

While there is a growing body of research that confirms longitudinal benefits of early childhood education, it remains a tough sell among state lawmakers, Osmond said. He plans to introduce similar legislation in 2013.

Some legislators are skeptical of the data. Others believe early learning is the sole responsibility of the family.

"I understand those concerns and in many ways, I share them," Osmond said. "But if we invest wisely for a specific population now that's already disadvantaged, we could save millions of taxpayer funds down the road."

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'

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