RICHLAND -- Julie Dockter said the changes she saw in her preschoolers during the past school year were amazing.
Students know their numbers and letters now. And though they appear to spend much of their time playing in their classroom at Jason Lee Elementary School, that play -- cooperative, focused and orderly -- is different from how they started the school year and key to them succeeding in kindergarten in the fall.
"It's learning how to learn," she said.
Despite new preschool programs at several elementary schools in recent years, hundreds of Richland's kindergartners still don't have those skills when they show up for their first day of school, officials say.
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That puts them behind their peers who attended preschool and makes educating them more expensive because they need more help in reading and writing. Those students still may never catch up and are at greater risk of dropping out in high school.
District and school officials are teaming with private child care providers and other community members and forming the All Children Exceeding Standards, or ACES, program.
Their plan is to reach out to parents of preschool-age children and help those parents prepare their students before they enter a classroom.
"It's the key to drop-out prevention," said Assistant Superintendent Erich Bolz.
Richland schools have among the highest rates of students meeting education standards in the state, but Bolz said teachers see a lot of kindergartners who don't have the basic skills needed to succeed.
About 42 percent of the district's kindergartners in the 2011-12 school year entered unprepared, district officials said. That means they didn't fully know their numbers and letters but also didn't know how to listen when spoken to or follow directions.
The district has taken steps in the past to get students ready for kindergarten. In addition to the dozens of private preschool programs in the Tri-Cities, preschools are now at eight of the district's nine elementary schools, run by the federally funded Head Start program or state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, or ECEAP.
Between 2007-12, the district saw a 10 percent increase in the number of students ready for kindergarten, equivalent to four classrooms of students. And by the end of kindergarten, nine out of 10 kindergartners are ready for first grade. But some students still struggle, meaning they need more help from reading and writing specialists and may never catch up with their classmates.
The problem often is seen in students who don't attend preschool before kindergarten, which can be for a variety of reasons. Government-funded programs serving low-income families have limited capacity. Private preschools can have waiting lists or be too expensive for some families. Just knowing the options for preschool can be a challenge, teachers said.
"There are a lot (of students) out there who aren't being served," said Erica Price, a preschool teacher with Head Start at Jefferson Elementary School. "A lot of parents don't even know about us."
Bolz said the program is modeled on other early childhood intervention programs, such as the READY! for Kindergarten program started by the Kennewick School District with the Children's Reading Foundation of the Mid-Columbia almost two decades ago and a program in the Bremerton School District that led to partnerships with private preschools.
"We really want to look at a more holistic initiative," Bolz said.
ACES was launched this spring, and district officials still are building support and outlining how it will be carried out. Having preschool and kindergarten teachers meet to align curriculum and connecting parents of preschoolers to a number of community organizations and providers are key goals of the project, but training parents to educate their children also is crucial, Bolz said.
That home-based education includes learning basic academic subjects but also the social behaviors necessary for students to be successful in school. Price said that could include preschoolers being given a responsibility at home to teach focus and work ethic, such as putting away their toys or helping clear the dinner table.
District officials and their partners said there are challenges to the project.
Suzanne Suyama, supervisor with the Child Care Resource and Referral program of Catholic Family & Child Service, said the schedules of preschool teachers and operators and kindergarten teachers differ, which makes collaboration difficult.
Others said securing resources could be a challenge, as the district already has exhausted much the funding it had available for pre-K programs, so volunteerism is expected to play a big role. District officials said it's not yet clear exactly how much money may be needed to implement the program.
But Bolz and Suyama said they don't expect to have trouble recruiting people to work with the project. Both said initial meetings where organizers discussed academic standards and sought community support were positive.
And while proponents are still developing how they will inform preschool parents of the program, Bonnie Wickler of the district's special programs department said they'll pursue "the full gamut" -- from advertising and news coverage to posting fliers and sending notices home with students.
Patty Marcum, director of Gateway School for Young Children in Richland, said she'd yet to hear about the ACES program, though she and her preschool's teachers always have had a good working relationship with the district. She said it sounds like something she could support.
"I would love for the Richland School District to somehow, some way get (information) to the parents," she said.