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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 7:22 pm | Fair 50º


UCSB Study Tracks Academic Success of Homeless Children

Early research at Storyteller Children's Center points to a promising start

Education and how to improve it is a hot topic right now with Waiting for Superman, a new documentary about the problems with America’s educational system. The film opened in theaters across the country over the weekend.

So an educational forum hosted by Storyteller Children’s Center attracted an overflow crowd last week to hear Jane Conoley, dean of UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, and professor Mike Furlong present their research on academic achievement in Santa Barbara County, and their belief that high-quality early childhood education makes a huge difference in whether a child succeeds later in school.

Furlong is conducting a five-year study tracking the academic progress of the children who graduate from Storyteller, a preschool for homeless and very-low income children who often face numerous challenges because of the chaos and instability in their lives. He is also measuring how well prepared for kindergarten the Storyteller children are.

The study showed surprising results: despite the challenges the Storyteller children face, most of them are ready for kindergarten at a much higher rate than similar children who didn’t attend Storyteller. Also, once they graduate from Storyteller, they do well in kindergarten.

“The majority of the children are doing well in kindergarten, which lays the foundation for later academic success,” said Furlong, whose study is still in the early stages and therefore doesn’t show conclusive results yet.

What the study does show, however, is that 57 percent of the Storyteller children were in a “ready for kindergarten” group, compared to about 21 percent of similar children in Santa Barbara County (from a group of 2,100 children tested).

Once in school, the study also shows that a majority of Storyteller children did well in early reading skills and two-thirds did well in early math skills, according to the kindergarten report cards of these children. Five groups of children will be tracked through third grade, with the study ending in 2012.

“We’re proud of our results,” said Jon Clark, president of the Storyteller board of directors. “But it’s not so much about Storyteller as it is about how great early childhood education can help change the education system.”

Storyteller executive director Terri Allison told the audience that part of her school’s success has to do with preparing the children to learn.

“We’re working really hard on their social-emotional health,” she said. “The child needs to be ready to go to school, and the parents need to be ready to support the child’s learning.”

But Storyteller has a waiting list of 100 children at any one time, so only a limited number of children can gain the advantages it offers.

Although Storyteller is the first Santa Barbara preschool to use research to track its success, three local schools are now using the Storyteller research model to chart their progress: Harding University Partnership School in the Santa Barbara School District, Isla Vista School in the Goleta Union School District and Main Family Resource Center in the Carpinteria Unified School District.

Some audience members got a glazed look on their faces when Furlong showed slides with charts and graphs, but Clark reminded the audience that the hard data is important.

“It’s pretty easy to pull out one successful case to tell you about,” said Clark. “But we want to be able to tell you that our program is working overall. It’s not anecdotal, it’s research-based.”

The education forum, held at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, started with brief remarks by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who talked about the importance of education in preventing crime. Conoley then talked about the importance of early intervention as a predictor of later academic success.

Conoley’s research shows that among the states, California has the second worst eighth-grade math scores, just ahead of Mississippi. Eighth-grade math scores are an indicator of whether children will enroll in college, Conoley said, because children who are not proficient in algebra by ninth grade are 75 percent more likely to drop out of high school. The root of the problem is a lack of high-quality early childhood education, especially for low-income children, she said.

“Early childhood intervention works,” she said. “Kindergarten is too late. If we wait until kindergarten, those kids will always be behind.”

Conoley’s presentation showed that in Santa Barbara County, only 31 percent of the students are proficient in Algebra I by the end of 12th grade, and more than half the students are not proficient in science.

“Every year we are doing better, but the gap between affluent and poor kids is not getting better,” she said.

At the end of the forum, Clark urged audience members to go back to their offices and watch the trailer for Waiting for Superman on their computers.

“I hope you will mull over how the movie relates to this presentation today,” he said.

Waiting for Superman opened in theaters around the country over the weekend.

Click here for more information on Storyteller Children’s Center.

Noozhawk contributor Julia Rodgers is a local freelance writer and a board member of Storyteller Children’s Center.

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