Beaufort County early childhood experts react to SC school readiness audit

Teacher Colleen Kelly reads to 3-year-old students in the Dolphins room of Lowcountry Day preschool on Friday.
Teacher Colleen Kelly reads to 3-year-old students in the Dolphins room of Lowcountry Day preschool on Friday. Jay Karr

An audit of South Carolina First Steps, the state's school-readiness program, suggests too many parents are not preparing their children to learn, and the state should do more to help them.

First Steps' goal is to reach children who face risks such as low birth weight, poverty, abuse, or having teenage mothers. The Legislative Audit Council's report, released June 18, found that 14 years after the program was created, the percentage of at-risk children in South Carolina remains high.

The report says lawmakers must define "school readiness" and establish preschool testing to better determine which children most need help.

S.C. Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who owns Hobbit Hill preschools in Beaufort, says Beaufort County does well in this regard. But she also argues that it and other counties would benefit if the state provided a clearer definition, as the auditors recommended, and testing that would provide earlier and better intervention.

Erickson and some other educators, however, are wary of traditional standardized testing for preschoolers.

"Young children learn in a variety of ways and develop at their own pace," Erickson said. "... Point-in-time assessments do not give a complete picture. The assessment needs to be interactive and observation-based."

National research has shown skills and abilities developed during early childhood are linked to academic and social outcomes later in school.

The Beaufort County School District spent $3.3 million last school year -- a mix of federal, state and local tax money -- to provide full- and half-day prekindergarten for 829 at-risk 4-year-olds. The district also offers speech, vision, hearing and developmental screening for children ages 2 1/2 to 5 at neighborhood elementary schools to identify those ready for kindergarten, as well as children who need services such as speech therapy or further examination for possible developmental concerns.

"I believe school readiness also requires access to early intervention services and community resources," said Ashley Hutchison, Beaufort County district coordinator of early childhood education. "I feel the district does a great job of providing those services, but we should do more. Every child deserves the opportunity to attend a quality early childhood program to build foundational skills needed for lifelong success."

For more than 20 years, the district has provided a parenting and family literacy program to parents with children age 7 or younger. It aims to promote family literacy and help parents in their role as their child's first teacher. The program includes free help for adults to earn a high school equivalency degree.

"Children should choose and spend time looking at books in the classroom on a daily basis," said Kim Duke-Clark, owner of Lowcountry Day Christian Preschool & Camp in Bluffton, where children are read and sung to beginning at 6 weeks old.

But just as important as knowing the ABCs, rhyming, writing their name and counting to 99 are physical, social and emotional skills, Duke-Clark said.

That means children should be encouraged to play, particularly games and role-playing that encourage them to use their imagination, according to Hutchison.

"If a child has a good foundation of all of those domains, they will be successful and ready for school," Hutchison said.

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Related content:

S.C. Early Learning Standards: Early Learning Standards for children age 3, 4 and 5 are available from the S. C. Department of Education and are utilized in Beaufort County School District's early childhood programs.

Beaufort County officials urge lawmakers to expand early childhood education: June 25, 2013

Audit: Lawmakers need to define school readiness: June 18, 2013