Kindergarten readiness in Sonoma County is declining for the fifth straight year. Can the recession be stopped?
Kindergarten readiness among Sonoma County children continued to decline in 2021, and racial and socioeconomic opportunity gaps persist, according to the latest annual report on the subject.
Over the past five years, the proportion of children entering kindergarten with the appropriate skills has steadily declined, from 40% in 2016-2017 to 32% in 2021-22, according to a study by Project READY. It is a coalition of local organizations and school districts that collect and process kindergarten readiness data.
Latino, Black and Indigenous children also remained consistently less likely to be fully prepared for kindergarten in the early years: compared to 50% of White students and 48% of Asian students in 2021, only 37% of Indigenous students, 29% of black students and 28% of Latino children showed up ready.
Leaders of Project READY, an acronym for Road to Early Achievement and Development of Youth, said the data, while disheartening, is also not surprising in the context of other data that has shown that the pandemic and previous crises in Sonoma County had the most severe effects on families of color and low-income families.
“Unfortunately, this doesn’t continue to be a surprise to us,” said Oscar Chavez, deputy director of the Sonoma County Department of Social Services, one of Project READY’s partners.
“We know that if you live at the intersection of race and poverty, you’re going to have a tougher time. But what we have learned over the years is that we must prioritize investments in the area of prevention. The data is clear: Ensuring children enter kindergarten ready to learn reduces the number of interventions young children will need later. »
Partners are preparing to address the declining trend in kindergarten readiness with new programs and efforts to increase funding for strategies that evidence shows work.
“I remain optimistic about the direction and opportunities that the READY program and our community partners are creating,” said Jill St. Peters, who leads the Quality Counts program at the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs, an organization in non-profit that offers early childhood services for families.
“And I also appreciate the transparency of this data, because it really shines a light on the issues that our community is facing.”
READY partners are moving forward with an increasingly holistic lens, said Angie Dillon-Shore, executive director of First 5 Sonoma County.
“For a long time we’ve focused almost exclusively on ‘What we need is preschool for everyone, if everyone has preschool it’s going to go away,'” Dillon-Shore said. “But what we do know about brain development is that the earlier we can mitigate the impact of poverty and related contributing factors, the more likely the child will develop optimally.”
Income plays a critical role in families’ ability to access childcare or early education. In Sonoma County, according to United Way, child care costs for a preschooler and infant can total about $21,672 per year, which is a huge financial benefit for many families.
READY data has consistently shown that Sonoma County children from households with incomes of $75,000 or more were significantly more likely to be ready for kindergarten than children from low-income families. In 2021, children in the top income group were more than twice as likely to be ready for kindergarten than children from families with household incomes of $34,999 or less.
Addressing these disparities requires an approach that considers the myriad effects of financial insecurity on families with young children, Dillon-Shore said.
These often include impacts on children’s health, both physical and mental. When parents are busy with multiple jobs or facing crises, their young children may miss opportunities to acquire language through activities such as reading together or singing songs.
However, to better understand these impacts requires relationships, Dillon-Shore said.
“Data is key, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” she said. “We really need to hear from families: what is their experience, what are the day-to-day impacts of struggling with income, food, housing? And then we better understand the impacts on children.
This type of feedback helped shape plans to implement a Universal Basic Income pilot program for families with young children in several Sonoma County communities.
Starting in January, 305 low-income families across the county — including those living in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Healdsburg — will begin receiving $500 a month in Guaranteed Basic Income for 24 months. The program is modeled after plans tested in other Bay Area cities and is funded by the American Rescue Plan Act.