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School-bus ready

Five-year-old Laken Drake boards a school bus with his mom, Jordan Drake, at the Kinderpalooza event held Tuesday night at Kelso High School to get an idea of the bus experience before he starts kindergarten in the fall.

Kelso is one of Washington’s school districts most in need of expanding early childhood learning programs and opportunities, a new state study found.

Kelso serves the lowest percentage of children eligible for Head Start and other early childhood education programs out of all school districts in Cowlitz County, according to the report.

There are an estimated 261 children in the district eligible for Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, yet Kelso can only afford to serve 31% of them, officials there say.

Michele Larsen, district spokeswoman, said the average percentage of children served in Cowlitz County is 59.6%. The Longview School District serves 96% of its eligible children.

The study is a yearly assessment of the programs done by the Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families that is used to determine which districts are a priority for program expansion.

Along with the number of eligible children living in each school district, the study also factors in race and ethnicity statistics and child abuse and neglect rates to assign a score to each district.

Scores range from one to eight, with eight being a district most in need of expanded child education programs. Kelso received a score of six, one of only seven other districts in the state to score a six. One district received a seven, and no districts received an eight.

Kelso is the only district in Cowlitz County to receive a six. Castle Rock, Longview, Kalama and Woodland all received a two, and Toutle Lake scored a three.

Larsen said Kelso schools have made improving early childhood education a priority for this year.

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“We’re spending time on how we can lift up our numbers of children being served,” Larsen said.

The data for the report was compiled prior to December 2018, and the report said 100% enrollment is not expected. However, the department has target enrollment goals of 51% of eligible 3-year-olds and 82.5% of eligible 4-year-olds.

Larsen said as part of the effort, the district started working on raising kindergarten readiness scores this year with its “Kinderpalooza” event.

The event was an evening open house where parents could meet teachers and learn about school resources, and students could see what kindergarten is like before they started.

Previously, the Daily News reported that only 11% of Kelso kindergarteners were fully ready to start school, compared to a state rate of nearly 45%. And a Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills study showed a correlation between kindergarten readiness and the likelihood a student will graduate high school.

Larsen said early learning programs like Head Start are important for students to make sure they are prepared to succeed, which is why the district has made increasing availability a priority.

“Kinderpalooza was one way to help,” Larsen said. “But it’s a community issue, too. We need to all be at the table to fix this.”

Larsen said the district will be developing a more comprehensive plan over the next year that will include building partnerships with community providers.

The Department of Children, Youth, and Families will assess ECEAP and Head Start saturation again in December of this year.

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