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More Primary School Kids Are Arriving Ill-Prepared For Learning. How Can Peoria Public Schools Bridge The Gap?

Tim Shelley
The Peoria Public Schools Board of Education meets at the district administration building, 3202 N. Wisconsin, on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

Peoria Public Schools is considering contracting with third-party company ChanceLight to provide alternative learning for kindergarten through 4th grade students who aren't in a special education program, but in need of additional supports.

Superintendent Sharon Kherat says that includes kids entering kindergarten or 1st grade who aren't yet potty-trained, or able to identify shapes or colors.

"We try to make our work easy, but behind the scenes, it's very, very, very difficult," Kherat said. "We try to make it look easy, but yeah, with the staff, the majority of them are doing a really nice job. And this is just more supports for them. And really more supports for the kids to give them a fighting chance."

ChanceLight would operate under a 10 to 1 student/teacher ratio.

Derrick Booth, the district's director of social and emotional learning, said more primary age students are falling behind. About half of the 20 referrals for special education program evaluations made this year are primary school-aged students.

Board member Dr. Anni Reinking said that number of referrals isn't out of the norm, but Booth said that's where he takes issue.

"It being normal is the problem, where I want to provide some kind of alternative so that students don't stay in this normal state and eventually get labeled as special ed," Booth said. "That they can get some supports, and return to their home school, and not be on the list for a special ed evaluation, labeled before they're even in 5th grade."

Kherat noted there's also a disparity issue at play. Most of those kids referred for a special education evaluation are low-income and Black.

Kherat said many of these kids are also dealing with trauma, such as physical and mental abuse, homelessness, and incarcerated or deceased parents.

Discussions around contracting with ChanceLight for an alternative education program for primary school students began prior to COVID-19, but the year of remote learning has only exacerbated the issues. Kherat said in-house pilot programs didn't pan out.

Reinking pressed on that point, asking if the teachers in that pilot program were specially trained for early childhood education, which she said is a different career track than educating older children. Kherat said they were teachers who had expressed interest in participating in the program.

Reinking and board member Lynne Costic also stressed the need for more early childhood interventions. Booth said he agrees that also needs to happen, and plans are in the works, but the district also needs to address the kindergarten and first grade students in school now who aren't ready to learn.

ChanceLight was a discussion-only item on the Monday school board agenda.

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