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DANBURY United Way program paves way to success

September 27, 2018

DANBURY — A United Way program is helping Danbury’s youngest students from one of its most disadvantaged neighborhoods get a better jump on kindergarten with a little help from their parents at home.

After two years, the United Way’s Strong Start literacy and summer skills programs have shown a double-digit increase in the test scores and student growth measures for kindergarteners at Park Avenue Elementary School, according to a report presented to Danbury Public Schools leaders Wednesday night.

Those results have made a tremendous impact at one of the area’s schools serving low-income families, where 78 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch and where two-thirds are English-language learners.

“We’re very excited about what the data are telling us,” said Kim Morgan, CEO of the United Way of Western Connecticut. “We saw it (improve) last year and I wondered if it would be a blip or carry through, but it’s not carried through for two years.

“What this is a testament to is that parent engagement is so important and we have numbers now to show that.”

The program began in 2014 as a way to help students who could not attend pre-school learn classroom skills, like raising hands and lining up, and to teach their parents to help them learn and read at home to catch up with their peers.

The slate of programs has expanded since to include Spanish-language engagement and networking for Latino and Hispanic parents, playgroups, a community garden and a walking school bus to better engage the children and parents with the school.

An analysis of student data shows 43 percent of students who participated in at least one of those programs outperformed peers who did not participate by 10.2 points on their literacy scores, according to the United Way. Students who participated showed 6.7 percent more student growth from fall tests to spring tests and those who participated in more than one Strong Start initiative had higher results.

The results prove that outreach programs that engage parents earlier lead to compound improvements that can better help students who would otherwise struggle to keep up with their peers, said Caroline LaFleur, the United Way’s community impact coordinator working on the initiative.

“That’s the hardest part of the job, but it makes such a difference and this shows that,” said Anne Mead, the district’s director of family, school and community partnerships. “We really want to scale this for other schools.”

School administrators and United Way leaders had hoped to expand the program this year to other elementary schools, but a major donor that supported the project has “reprioritized” what areas of the state to help support, Morgan said.

That leaves a gaping hole in the about $100,000 to $105,000 annual budget the United Way dedicates to the programs, so leaders are instead focusing on fundraising to keep the Park Avenue project intact, they said.

“I think this demonstrates, if a third year in a row comes in like this, that we should be doing this in every school if parent engagement makes that big a difference,” Morgan said. “Ten points is a big difference on an assessment.”

zach.murdock@hearstmediact.com

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