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Program Builds A Bridge To Kindergarten

Rachael McDonald

A program in Lane County that helps children get ready to be in school got a big infusion of federal money this fall. The Kids in Transition to School program started years ago in Eugene / Springfield and is poised to go county-wide.

It's a Saturday, but these kindergarteners seem happy to be in school. The small group has been together since midsummer. They're participating in the 16-week Kids in Transition to School or KITS. It was developed at Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene by Katherine Pears and her team. They wanted something that would help kids who didn't have a lot of resources at home with ABCs and 1-2-3s.

Pears: "But also, social skills. So how do kids learn to get along with other people? How can they enter a group if they want to be in that game, but how do they do it without disrupting the game? And how do they do those really basic things like sit still, pay attention to the teacher? It comes under this big sort of umbrella of self-regulation."

Pears says KITS was originally developed for foster kids who have unique challenges in school readiness. It's since expanded to include several schools in the Eugene area. The KITS classes start in summer for 8 weeks and continue for another 8 weeks into the school year.

Credit Rachael McDonald
Kids watch the teacher act out sadness.

At this class at Prairie Mountain School in Eugene's Bethel district, the children are learning about emotions. Two teachers perform a skit for the kids.

Teacher: "Okay, get your hands ready. 3,2,1 Action! [clap]."

The teachers act out a scenario where one is looking sad in the corner. The other asks if she'll play with her and she says she was sad because she didn't have any friends…

Teacher: "how did I feel when I was sitting alone in the corner. Raise your had if you think you know how I felt? Eli?
Eli: "Sad."
Teacher: "I felt sad. Why was I sad…"

Pears says the work has shown positive results. OSLC has done a couple of studies to evaluate its success. One of the findings was a 28 percent drop in risk of reading failure among students who'd participated in KITS.  The federal government has recognized the program's effectiveness. It chose KITS to receive a Social Innovation Fund grant of 2 million dollars over 2 years.

Pears: "That grant will help us to grow the program throughout Lane County. So we're going to be able to provide folks with the ability to run the program in their community agencies, their school districts, you know, whoever may want it."

The grant was awarded to United Way of Lane County which has to raise money to match the funds dollar for dollar. Pears says it will be a community-wide effort to benefit more children. The classes are free. Childcare, transportation and Spanish translation are offered. There's also a class for parents.
Katherine Pears says the program recognizes parents are kids' first and most important teacher.

Credit Rachael McDonald
Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene.

Pears: "We really work with them to pass on the same techniques that we're using in the classroom so support children in learning new skills and to sort of pump them up. We pass those skills on to the parents because there's going to be so much learning that's happening in this transition period. There's going to be new skills that they need."

The skills are paying off for KITS parent Bethany Satterwhite. She says her son Quinn has changed since he started the program.

Satterwhite: "His teacher has said he's been doing awesome and he's like a leader in the classroom. So, I think KITS has definitely helped with that, getting him more comfortable. Like on his first day of school he just said, "Bye" and he walked, and I was like "Okay, see you later." I thought there'd be more of a big deal but there wasn't."

Another parent, Li Hoang says his boy Jordan has a lot of personality.

Hoang: "He's, I described him out there as wild because he is wild. But he was a lot more wild and rambunctious before. But now I have better tools to get him to cooperate with me."

Studies show early childhood education has a huge impact on graduation rates. Oregon's rate is among the lowest in the nation. Bethel Superintendent Colt Gill says he'd like the KITS program to be used by all his incoming kindergartners.

Gill: "Beyond more students graduating, we really want them to be ready for the next step. So whether that's career or college, we want them to have the skills they need to be prepared for that and these programs and programs like this help set us up for that success and so we're very focused on those issues."

Gill says he can usually spot students who've been through the KITS program because of their air of confidence.
The Social Innovation Fund grant is giving the KITS program a huge boost. Katherine Pear's goal is to bring it to all 16 school districts in Lane County. Pears says she thinks the program could grow beyond the county to the whole state and the nation.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s former News Director. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000. After reporting for the Northwest News Network and KAZU, Rachael returned to KLCC in 2007 as Morning Edition host and a general assignment reporter covering politics, the environment, education, and the arts. She was hired as KLCC News Director in 2018. Rachael departed KLCC in June, 2022.
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