Beaufort County School District’s traveling Preschool Bus brings early childhood interactive learning experiences to neighborhoods throughout the county. COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

Nearly three-fourths of Beaufort County’s kindergarteners had difficulty fully engaging in their classroom activities in 2020.

Only 27% of the students entered kindergarten with sufficient skills, knowledge and abilities to engage with kindergarten-level instruction, according to the 2020 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) report from the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee.

Because it was post-Covid, the 2020 KRA was a modified assessment and might be considered a pandemic blip, but the full KRA from 2019 showed only about 39% were at the top level, “demonstrating readiness.”

Such results show that many of Beaufort’s children begin their educational journey at a severe disadvantage, and that worries United Way President and CEO Dale Douthat.

“I’ve been working for about two years researching and trying to figure out a way for us to make some sort of an impact on this. As we think about this, it’s important to realize that this is not the fault of the school districts,” Douthat said. “Whatever the child’s situation is, if they’re staying with a parent, neighbor, aunt, grandmother, childcare facility, it’s important that we point out that readiness is something that happens before they enter school.”

His concern originated from a phone conversation with Kim Statler, who at the time was the Lowcountry Regional Workforce Advisor for the state Department of Commerce.

“We were talking about workforce development, and she was lamenting the fact that the employers she worked with were seeing job applicants coming in without the ability to fill out a job application,” Douthat said. “Given that the better the job you’re going for, the more the technical job it is going to be – whether it’s heavy equipment or computers – literacy is the foundation of our workforce.”

Statler said the inability to fill out an application demonstrates an issue that goes back to the person’s early education.

“The issue is core skills in reading and math were missing for employees. I started to research what causing this, how far back does this go, where did the wheels fall off,” she said. “You start to see that kids are starting school in a deficit position. So what are we missing? Have the standards changed for kindergarten readiness or do the parents not know what the requirements are to go to kindergarten?”

Both Douthat and Statler believe it is partially an awareness issue, plus the standards have changed over time.

“My biggest concern was if you walk this issue from entry level worker all the way down, we have a pipeline issue and it goes all the way down the K-12 continuum,” said Statler, who is currently executive director of Polaris Tech Charter School in Ridgeland. “I think the solution has to be a multi-pronged approach. We have to address the issue, and messaging has to be consistently done every year.”

Douthat felt one of the first steps was to coordinate with all of the local organizations and agencies that work in early childhood, create awareness in the community, and then provide free resources to parents and caretakers. That effort expanded an existing organization into the Lowcountry Early Childhood Coalition.

“It’s a Lowcountry-wide collaboration. Public schools, private, state organizations, pediatricians’ offices. We’re looking at a wide swath of influencers to attack this problem head on,” Statler said.

Because it’s a global issue, there are hundreds of programs available, one of which attracted Douthat’s attention.

“I found an initiative out of Harvard called The Basics that is addressing all of these exact issues that we want to address locally. And all of their materials are free to use,” he said.

Part of the program is a text messaging service that every week sends parents or guardians facts relevant to the child’s age on Monday, followed by age-appropriate activities on Wednesday. The overall concept of program is to use life as the lesson book.

“Instead of saying you need to sit down with your child for 30 minutes before bedtime every day to read them a book, they’re saying, ‘Hey, you’re at the grocery store. You can point out colors and shapes, and you can do counting’,” said Douthat.

The Harvard program also has the attention of the Ashley Hutchison, director of readiness for the Beaufort County School District, and will be an addition to what the district is already doing to reach children before they get to school.

“The biggest thing is we try to meet children where they are developmentally, and then make progress and make growth from there,” said Hutchison. “We do that through a variety of ways, depending on that the child’s needs. Our district offers intervention-based pre-kindergarten for about 1,000 students, and it’s a full day.”

The pre-kindergarten program is completely voluntary, and is for those students who are 4 years old on or before Sept. 4. The children in the program are screened, but the screenings aren’t just for students in the program.

“We offer developmental screenings for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, so whether you are in our in District pre-kindergarten program or not, we are going to provide intervention for you in some way, depending on the outcome of that screening,” said Hutchison. “We reach out to our partners at the Department of Social Services, our local pediatricians programs, and our Head Start program. We reach out to those along with the Lowcountry Early Childhood Coalition, and all work together to help educate the parents on the developmental screening process.”

One of the “classroom” programs the school district offers is actually not in a school.

The Beaufort County School District traveling preschool bus goes into neighborhoods throughout the county to help educate parents on the importance of early childhood experiences.

“We are using some funding for the bus to support a full-time staff, and the bus will now be going out three to four days a week this school year to all locations in the county,” Hutchinson said. “The whole concept there is so that parents don’t have to come to us; we go to them.”

Hutchison said the district serves about 1,500 kindergarteners a year. The assessments that are made create a baseline for each student, and kindergarten teachers then can plan lessons based on the readiness of each child.

“Over the last 25-plus years, our school board has been extremely supportive in making sure our community has early childhood experiences for all children, starting at birth,” she said. “I think kindergarten is one of the hardest grades to teach. It’s a make-or-break moment. … We set them up for success early.”

The Head Start program, begun in January 1965 as part of the national “war on poverty,” started as an eight-week demonstration project designed to help break the cycle of poverty, according to the Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families. It began as a comprehensive program to meet the emotional, social, health, nutritional and educational needs of lower income pre-school children. A key tenet of the program was that it be “culturally responsive to the communities served, and that the communities have an investment in its success through the contribution of volunteer hours and other donations as non-federal share.”

That community investment is what is driving Douthat, Hutchison and a whole host of agencies that are part of the Lowcountry Early Childhood Coalition.

“What we’re working on right now, we plan on having done in the next three to six months, as we’re developing a business plan. The important thing to realize is that this is not a light switch. Once we implement this, it’s not going to fix the problem. This is a generational change,” Douthat said. “If we start working with parents of newborns today, we won’t know if we’re successful until the children enter kindergarten.”

Among the numerous groups investing in raising the scores are Beaufort First Steps, Agape Family Life Center, Beaufort and Jasper County School Districts, The Children’s Center, Beaufort County Human Services Department, Child Abuse Prevention Association, Sheldon Township Community Support Partnership, Department of Social Services, the Beaufort/Jasper Economic Opportunity Commission Head Start and the United Way of the Lowcountry.

“Ultimately, if we can be successful, what we’re really doing is we’re creating the next level of workforce for our community, so that in 18 to 20 years from now, all of these kids being born today are entering the workforce, and we want a better workforce,” said Douthat. “We want our economy to stay strong. We want to support those folks that are trying to bring better paying jobs in here. It takes time, but this is what we’re going for.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.