Officials in nearly one-third of Louisiana’s public school districts are quietly exploring ways to oversee child services from birth to age 5 to better prepare children for the classroom.
“It is something that is doable,” said West Baton Rouge Parish Schools Superintendent David Corona.
Corona’s is one of 22 school districts statewide, including six in the Baton Rouge area, that are part of the discussions, which began in March.
The model for the effort is a program in the West Feliciana Parish school system that has been in operation for about 20 years.
Put simply, that district placed a wide array of children’s services under its umbrella in a bid to improve school readiness, which officials said led to dramatic improvements.
The West Feliciana program includes Early Head Start and Head Start, both federally financed, and prekindergarten.
Early Head Start, which began in 1995, aids in the growth and development of children, including prenatal assistance.
Head Start is a longtime school readiness program for 3-year-olds, and uses grants to local groups to aid math and reading skills for children from low-income families.
“The transition is very smooth,” said West Feliciana Parish Schools Superintendent Hollis G. Milton, whose district is one of the top-rated in Louisiana.
“When you look at third-grade scores, 95 percent are meeting the standards,” Milton added, a reference to proficiency in English and math skills.
Louisiana already has a wide array of prekindergarten programs, including LA4, which began in 2002 and was also modeled in part on a West Feliciana program, which began in 1986.
LA4 is designed to prepare 4-year-olds from low-income homes for kindergarten socially and academically.
Experts say many children who enter kindergarten behind their peers never catch up.
But state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who has an interest in prekindergarten programs, and others began meetings in March to gauge interest in expanding early childhood education, especially amid the state’s grinding poverty and academic achievement that ranks among the nation’s worst.
Officials in the West Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge, Ascension, Assumption, Iberville and Pointe Coupee school systems are among the 22 that showed interest.
Billy Stokes, executive director of the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning in Lafayette, said the idea is for individual school districts to craft their own plans, rather than state lawmakers or someone else imposing them.
“It is feasible,” Stokes said.
In July and August, officials of the center provided districts with individual data, and plan to meet with them one-on-one on ways to develop their own proposals.
Corona said Louisiana’s pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds have won praise from outside the state.
“In West Baton Rouge Parish, the next logical step for us is to expand social services for people that age and their families,” Corona said.
“So we are contemplating how we are going to do that,” he added.
Pat Cooper, who was superintendent in West Feliciana Parish when that effort was launched, said school districts have to decide whether they would operate Early Head Start and other programs or merely coordinate with public and private groups to better prepare youngsters for school.
“If we can get those kids in programs we can make up for poverty or lack of parenting, all those excuses we use as educators,” Cooper said.
“What we know is if we have them from birth to 5 and start school at level, then they are going to probably be OK,” he said.
Financing is always a key issue, and exactly how any such undertaking would work in each district is unclear.
But backers contend that funds can be cobbled together from a variety of sources.
“There are very few sources of state or federal dollars that you can’t apply to an early childhood education program,” Cooper said.
He said the West Feliciana school system has relied on 20 or more funding sources.
“You just have to make it a priority,” Cooper said.