New research shows the Madison School District’s 4-year-old-kindergarten program is enrolling a greater share of minority and low-income children, potentially boosting opportunity for historically disadvantaged youths as more 4K participants overall go on to district kindergarten.

But there’s room for improvement as well, as about 20 percent of Madison public schools’ 4K graduates still attend kindergarten in a different district.

“The substantial number of students who participate in 4K but move on thereafter may represent a sizable loss in district enrollment worth addressing,” said the report from the Madison Education Partnership, a joint research practice between the district and UW-Madison School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Over the program’s start, from 2012-13 to 2016-17, the district’s overall 4K participation rate has risen from 67 percent to 72 percent of the district’s entering kindergartners, and is 5 to 10 percentage points higher among African-American and Latino students, low-income students and students who are English language learners.

“That shows they’re doing a good job of reaching out to kids from diverse backgrounds,” said Eric Grodsky, a UW-Madison associate professor and co-director of the research partnership.

The study showed 76 percent of African-American kindergarten students had attended 4K in the program’s first year, rising to 78 percent last school year. The same percentages were seen for Latino kindergartners, with low-income kindergartners’ 4K participation increasing from 73 percent to 79 percent over the same period.

White and Asian kindergarten students also saw increasing 4K participation over the six years, though at percentages lower than the other examined groups and lower than the overall percentage for all students. The rise was 64 percent to 69 percent for Asian kindergartners and 61 percent to 66 percent for white kindergartners.

“It’s confirming the notion that 4K is this equity-building enterprise,” said Beth Vaade, the district’s co-director of the research partnership. “It’s reaching the children who we know are most in need of support at the earlier ages.”

The study of enrollment patterns in the district’s 4K program, now entering its seventh year, is the partnership’s first research project since it formed about one year ago in a collaboration sought by WCER Director Bob Mathieu and district Superintendent Jen Cheatham.

The 4K study was intended as much to lay a data foundation for more in-depth study as it was to glean basic facts about the program, Vaade and Grodsky said.

“Now that we have a common understanding of where the program is and where it’s trending, we’re really excited about the work to come around 4K,” Vaade said. “This is just the start of a much larger conversation we’re going to be having around 4K over the next two years.”

Led by principal researcher Jaymes Pyne, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UW-Madison, the 4K study used data from the district to compare enrollment by year, race, income, disability and English language proficiency.

The study showed enrollment in the 4K program has fluctuated between 1,700 to 2,100 students annually, with a racial/ethnic composition closely mirroring the district — 43 percent white, 16 percent black, 22 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian and 10 percent identified as “other.” Last year’s class also was 45 percent low-income, 37 percent English language learners and 7 percent disabled.

The study also examined where 4K participants attended the three-hour, play-based classes — at the district’s 24 school sites or at one of the program’s 29 community-based locations that work under contract with the district — and who attends morning vs. afternoon sessions.

On those fronts, the researchers found the district’s school-based sites tend to serve a slightly more diverse student population, while parents with higher incomes tend to enroll their children in afternoon sessions.

However they’re situated, 4K programs function as pre-kindergarten enrichment opportunities designed to bridge the gap between home and school and build the social, emotional and early academic skills of 4-year-olds.

“4K is a space where you can allow kids to learn how to do school, and be part of that school community,” Vaade said. “They need to learn the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, but (teachers) also want to let their creativity come out and let 4K be the wonderful setting that establishes school as a really good place to come to.”

The research partnership’s next planned topic will be looking at the association between 4K participation and early literacy skills, followed by a study aimed at exploring chronic absenteeism in young children, 4K to grade 3.

The district also planned to study more closely why 1 in 5 of their 4K students attend kindergarten in other districts, and try to turn that around.

But the 4K program’s growing reach among minority, low-income and English language learners also is seen as a positive, regardless of where they attend kindergarten.

“As a district, we’d love to keep those students,” Vaade said, “but the reality is we want kids to be successful wherever they go to school.”

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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.