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‘Ready to Learn’ program to help Rockford’s vulnerable youth

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — Kindergartners in Rockford fall below the national average in some statistical categories, but a new initiative called "Ready to Learn" aims to implement plans to help kids succeed.

New data shows kindergartners across the city are vulnerable, and in some areas, at a disadvantage.

"Our neighborhoods aren't there for them in the same way," Matthew Johnson, a senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church and a co-chair of the "Ready to Learn" initiative, says.

Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ehren Jarrett agrees.

"When I was a kid in this community, we had a problem with kindergarten readiness," Jarrett explains. "This is a generational challenge we are facing here."

To fix that problem, RPS partnered with Alignment Rockford and Transform Rockford. That process began a year and a half ago. Then last January, teachers filled out forms on 2,000 kindergartners based on each child's behavioral and social skills.

"We've taken the time to collect the data and learn about what's happening with all of our partners and agencies throughout the community," Heidi Deetman, the executive director of academics for RPS and the co-chair of the "Ready to Learn" initiative, says.

The data was sent to the Erikson Institute, an organization focused on early childhood development. The institute created interactive maps based on all the categories and questions teachers were asked.

"You can see neighborhood by neighborhood - where's our vulnerabilities? What are our strengths? How are our kids doing in that neighborhood? How does that compare with other factors that might be influencing their outcomes?" Johnson says.

The categories in that data include physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and communication skills. The data showed a percentage of kids in each of those areas were considered vulnerable, but it differed based on location.

"Our kids are not uniformly vulnerable in all places," Johnson explains.

And that's what the data shows. Based on that information, volunteers for Alignment Rockford will create three teams to focus on specific issues, like strengthening families, location and equity, and how people can better interact with young kids.

Mayor Tom McNamara says advancements in early education can't be done without the help of the community.

"It's a 'WE' need to fix this, not one entity as Dr. Jarrett says," McNamara says.

The Mayor was excited about the next phase of "Ready to Learn," that being the implementation of the teams. He called it "terribly inspiring."

But while city and school leaders all expressed their admiration with the process thus far, they cautioned, seeing changes occur may take time.

"We're talking a 20-year timeline before we really see results," Johnson says.

It's a long-haul investment in the future of Rockford. And to help with funding, the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois announced it will give $210,000 to the "Ready to Learn" initiative over the next three years ($70,000 per year).

Richard Bodee

Richard Bodee is a reporter at WREX. He joined the 13 WREX team in June 2019 after graduating from DePaul University with a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism.

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