Jackson Elementary principal Kelly Soter wants newborns, toddlers and children too young for kindergarten to know they have a place at her Medford school.

Jackson Elementary principal Kelly Soter wants newborns, toddlers and children too young for kindergarten to know they have a place at her Medford school.

On Thursday, Sept. 19, she and her staff will have an open house to unveil the new Family Neighborhood Center, a cheerful space off the main lobby where parents and children up to 5 years old can practice for kindergarten.

Until now, about 80 percent of children who enrolled in Jackson's kindergarten had never been in a program such as Head Start or the YMCA that promotes school readiness.

"Many children start kindergarten already behind, and we want to close the inequities that impact future success," says Soter, whose K-6 school was awarded grants to offer pre-literacy activities for the earliest learners and provide resources to counter poverty, language barriers and other factors that contribute to achievement gaps.

The first five years of life, experts agree, have enormous impact on lifelong learning.

Most of Jackson's incoming kindergartners last year did not recognize letters or have first sound fluency, which are stepping stones to reading. They also lacked the basic emotional, social and cognitive traits critical to learning.

Some "kiddos," as Soter affectionately calls her youngest students, had never sat on a carpet for story time, shared lunchtime at a table or knew that they couldn't just wander out of the room.

"We want to become a vital community resource and help support both children and families through their child's academic journey," she says.

To identify areas in which a child needs extra help, the Oregon Department of Education launched new assessment testing this year.

In the first six weeks of school, kindergartners will be tested on early literacy, early math, social-emotional development, approaches to learning and self-regulation.

The ODE has found that some kindergartners have mastered letters but have a hard time with numbers, while others are able to communicate ideas and needs clearly, but have difficulty following directions.

Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long says early-learning centers such as Jackson's align with Gov. John Kitzhaber's vision for school reform and his goal to graduate every student by 2025.

"If we are able to sustain state and community support, this is an early example of the types of outreach we will see at many more elementary schools, especially those serving higher-poverty neighborhoods," Long says.

The prototype Family Neighborhood Center at Jackson may be replicated at local schools and Kids Unlimited, where the idea started.

Most Medford schools already have programs that encourage families to connect with teachers and their neighborhood school, adds Long.

Ruch School now has a preschool in collaboration with the YMCA.

Jackson, Washington and Wilson elementary schools have partnerships with Head Start, a federal preschool program with limited enrollment.

"But not every child who needs the program gets in," says Soter.

In October, about a dozen children will enroll in a new preschool on Jackson's campus.

"Jackson is leading the way with the outreach to parents of younger children," says Long. "The partnerships that are forming with local nonprofits are essential to maximize the benefit for families."

The new center, with window views of the playground, will be a place for adults to take parent-child education classes, participate in parent support groups and find help for food, medical care and housing needs.

Community outreach coordinator Nicky Love will help parents use the computer and access other resources.

Family Nurturing Center, OnTrack addiction recovery services and other community organizations will be on call.

Next to art easels and bookshelves, little ones will practice ABCs with games and donated learning tools such as Leap Pads, tape players and take-home "literacy bags."

"We have lots of goodies for the kiddos," says Soter.

Reach Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com