MANATEE COUNTY — The first five years of a child's life are often documented in a tangle of multiple databases. A pilot effort by the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County is hoping to streamline these databases by housing them in one place.
In April, the ELC will begin assigning unique identifier numbers to roughly 5,000 3- to 5-year-olds attending pre-kindergarten programs and receiving social services through the coalition in an effort to document the effectiveness of these programs.
"There's a big push to see what determines if a child is ready for school when they get to kindergarten," said Sharon Oakes, the coaltion's chief operations officer. "One of the things we've always been asked and not really been able to put in a quantifiable way is whether all the services we provide actually make kids ready for school."
The ELC will use students' academic progress in school to measure the effectiveness of the various pre-k services provided in the county, Oakes said. Not all children who receive services through the coalition go to pre-k, she added, and the new database will be able to document that.
"There are different things we'll be able to tell when it's all in one database and it'll be a lot easier to look at than when it's seven different databases," Oakes said.
Having streamlined data will help the coalition identify gaps for services and weed out programs that may not be as effective. The database will be a huge help to teachers, too, said Robin Thompson, director of early learning for the school district of Manatee County.
"It's a way to provide more information so that we can make better instructional decisions for our students based on data," Thompson said.
A teacher will be able to pull up the child's unique ID number and gain insight into that student's early childhood, including what services they may have received, whether they took part in school readiness programs and their attendance record in those programs. With this information, teachers will be better able to anticipate and accommodate children's specific needs, Thompson added.
The benefits of data
The pilot effort is rooted in research that confirms the importance of early childhood on academic success, Oakes said.
Manatee County is a partner in the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, an initiative that aims to make all children proficient readers by the end of third grade.
"We will be able to track children's access to programs, his or her development, school readiness information, and longitudinal academic progress," said Beth Duda, director for the SCGLR. Streamlining the ability to share data, Duda added, will help community and government agencies collaborate more effectively and share best practices.
Nationally, and even internationally, districts are catching on to the potential benefits of streamlined data sharing. The Manatee County school district began tracking absences last year. They found that on days when it rained, the children who lived within a two-mile radius of their school and did not get busing were not showing up for the day.
"That was something we were able to find out just by tracking absences alone," Oakes said.
In Utah, the Preschool Outcomes Data System tracks child outcomes to help the state identify the strengths and weaknesses of different special education programs. Rhode Island has worked to promote cross-agency data sharing between the health department and the school system to ensure that children are receiving proper screenings.
The long-term goal in Manatee is to begin assigning the numbers in early infancy, Oakes said.
"For a long time, we were looking at kindergarten as the beginning and not necessarily understanding that learning starts long before kindergarten," Oakes said. "Everything they do impacts their development. Having this database is what we'll be able to show people to help understand why what happens in those early years is so important."