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Migrant pupils get a kindergarten preview

Low-income preschool students who have migrated between towns are receiving a jump-start on kindergarten this week, participating in a program run by Southern Oregon Head Start and the Medford School District.

The Washington Elementary Jump Start program for migrant, incoming kindergartners kicked off this week and runs through Aug. 17 at the school.

"We want to prepare the kids for a smoother transition," said Nancy Nordyke, director of Southern Oregon Head Start, which was contracted by the Medford School District to run the program. "Some of the children have had some experience and some have not."

Nordyke said 15 students will participate in the two-week program, which includes three-and-a-half hours of instruction and activities each day, including free breakfast and lunch.

The students come predominantly from Spanish-speaking families, and many wouldn't have gone into kindergarten prepared without this extra boost.

"When English is not their first language, it's more challenging," said Nordyke.

The program uses federal Title-1C funding, money specifically designated for programs to help low-income students who are migrant, meaning their families have moved in search of seasonal agricultural work.

"We're targeting migrant students who may not have a lot of preschool background," said Terrie Dahl, supervisor of federal programs for the Medford School District. "We're trying to give them a jump-start for kindergarten."

Programs like Washington Elementary's are popping up across the state as Oregon works to better gauge the preparedness of kindergarten-bound students and offer more help to get children ready to begin school.

Formed last fall, the state's Early Learning Council was created specifically to study the needs of at-risk children 5 and younger and assess their readiness for entering school.

"There are many more children falling into poverty," said Nordyke, who added that although Head Start has served a higher number of children over the past 10 years, she believes more attention should be given to early childhood education.

Last November, the Early Learning Council created a Kindergarten Readiness Assessment — a survey to gauge student preparedness — which will be piloted in a handful of schools this fall.

According to the Oregon Department of Education, more than 40,000 children started kindergarten last year, and the state's high poverty rate means that 40 percent or more of those students may not have been prepared for school.

But without more testing, the numbers are just speculation.

Nordyke said that at Southern Oregon Head Start, preschool students are assessed three times a year to make sure they stay on track to be ready for kindergarten when it begins.

"We really focus on trying to work with the schools on what their expectations are," said Nordyke. "By the end of the year, 90 percent are prepared."

Not being prepared could mean that a student isn't familiar with colors, numbers and the alphabet and doesn't know how to function in a classroom because they've never attended a preschool.

Nordyke said all these skills are being addressed in the Washington Jump Start program, including how to write your name with a pencil, take direction from a teacher to line up and how to use school facilities.

"And we include some outside time on the big-kid playground," Nordyke said.

Research has shown that students who attend preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, be healthier and are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, Nordyke said.

"You really can help the child be more successful later," she said. "And it's something as a country we have not been fully committed to."

The Medford School District is working this year to expand kindergarten offerings to students at Title 1 schools, organizing a "revolving door" type program that would provide full-day instruction for the neediest students. Other students receive only half-day instruction.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.