Serving at-risk children in Central Oregon

New effort coordinates early education

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

To better serve the region’s roughly 11,500 at-risk children younger than 7, the state has offered Central Oregon about $250,000 to help coordinate the various services targeting these children and their families.

The Wellness and Education Board of Central Oregon will host the region’s new Early Learning Hub, an organization charged with coordinating education, health, social and other services for the youngest residents of Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties. WEBCO, which includes on its board a commissioner from each of the three counties and a member of the High Desert Education Service District, was established in 2011 to coordinate public and behavioral health services. Recognition by the state as an Early Learning Hub was granted earlier this week to WEBCO and seven other regional groups, bringing the total number of them to 14 statewide. The charge of coordinating services is seen as a path toward better preparing young children for kindergarten.

“We’ll be coordinating with a lot of services already out there in the three counties, but with the hub, we’ll create an avenue where there can be more collaboration and coordination among early-learning activities,” said WEBCO Executive Director Jeffrey Davis.

In 2012, there were approximately 17,500 children from newborn to 6 years old in the three-county area and the Warms Spring Reservation, which will be included in some of the hub’s programs.

Of that population, about 11,500 are at risk, a number that doesn’t reflect tribal children. In Oregon, the term “at risk” is defined as a child who is in danger of not entering school ready to learn due to a number of reasons, including living in poverty, having inadequate nutrition or experiencing domestic violence.

John Rexford, superintendent of the High Desert ESD and a member of the WEBCO board, said the Early Learning Hub system is a step in the state’s goal to coordinate education from the prekindergarten level through college. Nonetheless, he also noted that only about 15 percent of children are served by a public early-education provider, such as Head Start.

“Most are at home or at somebody else’s home, and so a great preponderance of children are being served outside the public system,” Rexford said.

Despite this divide, the hub still aspires to reach all at-risk students by bringing early education into new settings.

“Quite a few children don’t show up in any formal childhood system before kindergarten, but they do up show up elsewhere, such as at the doctor’s,” said Megan Irwin, policy director for the Oregon Department of Education Early Learning Division. “The (hub’s) connection to health care is so important because kids show up at the doctor’s office before going to school, so if we can pull pediatricians into our work, we can touch more children, even if it’s a light touch. It can be as simple as showing parents the importance of reading to kids.”

Davis said many of the specifics for the Central Oregon hub are still to be worked out, as the group just received recognition. However, he said, the hub is interested in finding areas where having a regional service instead of a county-by-county service would save money and improve outcomes.

Another big focus will be on breaking down the barriers among all the services that help children. As an example of how this may work, Rexford suggested the creation of education materials that could be distributed at health care facilities or other places that young children pass through in an effort to reach more future students.

“We could share those materials with families so they can use them to work on numbers, letters, colors, shapes and other things that would help a child for kindergarten,” Rexford said.

According to the state’s first kindergarten assessment from fall 2013, only one-third of entering kindergartners could name five or fewer letters, while 14 percent could not name a single letter.

Irwin said leaving the charge to improve kindergarten readiness to smaller regions was an intentional decision.

“The idea is that the best ideas are generated locally by people who know their communities,” Irwin said. “The state sets parameters for what the hubs do, and they are empowered to determine … how they do things to reach the outcomes the state is putting forward funding to achieve.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com