Communities all over the state are reporting impacts on enrollment and test scores for school-age children in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Sonoma County has released a sobering, detailed report focusing on kindergarteners there and how they are faring post-pandemic.
Only one in five children in Sonoma County were ready for kindergarten when they entered school last fall, according to a report released Wednesday from the county Department of Human Services (DHS). Many of the educational disparities fall along ethnic, racial and economic lines, the report said.
Kindergarten readiness declined in the county for the sixth consecutive year, according to the report entitled “Road to Early Achievement and Development for Youth,” or READY, which was initiated by the county DHS and the First 5 Sonoma County Commission, a body that allocates county funds for early education.
Overall, only 22 percent of Sonoma County children were ready for kindergarten last fall, down from 31 percent the previous year and 41 percent in 2016.
The county said the decline can be attributed to repeated wildfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which the county describes as “emergencies that have disrupted early-learning programs and taken a toll on many families’ health and finances.”
During the first nine months of the pandemic, more than 200 of the 608 childcare and preschool facilities in the county closed, the county said.
“Today, about 7,800 children are enrolled in local day care and preschool programs, down from nearly 12,800 before the pandemic,” the county said in a news release about the report.
“We are seeing the decline in kindergarten readiness play out in our schools,” Amie Carter, Sonoma County superintendent of schools, said in a statement. “Students who enter kindergarten unprepared are more likely to struggle academically, and we know how vital the first years of school are in ensuring our children can read well enough to support learning.”
Carter said that lack of preparedness can mean that students struggle with social-emotional skills as well.
Angie Dillon-Shore, executive director of First 5 Sonoma County, an organization that advocates for and funds early childhood development initiatives, said disparities along ethnic, racial and economic lines have been consistent across the six-year period of study and “reflect the impacts of segregation and discrimination that compound over time.”
According to the county, children from families with incomes of $100,000 or more were more than twice as likely to be ready for kindergarten than children in families with incomes of $34,999 or less. Living in poverty also affects a child’s social-emotional and cognitive development, the county said.
The demographics of Sonoma County’s incoming kindergarteners in the READY report are 49 percent Latino and Hispanic, 1.32 percent Black, 2.7 percent Asian American, .5 percent indigenous American, .83 percent Pacific Islander, 39 percent white and 7 percent mixed race.
The report cites aggregate data showing that since 2016, on average, only 26 percent of Latinx children, 33 percent of Black children, and 33 percent of indigenous/Native American children were ready for kindergarten. In comparison, 42 percent of white children were ready for kindergarten, along with 50 percent of Asian children and 58 percent of Pacific Islander children.
The county says there are several efforts underway to tackle the problem, such as a state program that will provide universal pre-kindergarten to every 4-year-old by the start of the 2025-26 school year. The county also said that more state funding has been allocated to support the needs of dual-language learners.
On a county level, the READY report suggests that collecting data on readiness is the first step in addressing the problem, but community, societal, environmental and systemic factors should be an ongoing research priority.
“Although the decline and disparities are dire, a deeper understanding of these inequitable outcomes will help our community identify strategies to ensure that Sonoma County is a place where a child’s race or ethnicity does not determine academic success,” reads the report.
To view the entire READY report, go to https://first5sonomacounty.org/wp-content/uploads/READY-Annual-Report_2023.pdf.