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story.lead_photo.caption Greta Hull, director of the Robert G. Combs Language Preschool, plays with William Beversdorf, 4, at the preschool on March 24, 2016, in Columbia, Mo. Beversdorf was born prematurely and struggles with speaking and interacting with other children. (Mike Krebs/Columbia Missourian via AP)

Before last week, Missouri was the only state in the nation that prohibited quality rating systems for preschools. However, Gov. Jay Nixon signed a law Wednesday that allows early childhood education centers to opt into a voluntary quality rating system.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is still working out the details, but the rating system could include staff qualifications, safety standards, instructional quality, parental engagement and community involvement, according to a news release.

Having a quality rating system will make it easier for parents to assess which preschool they want their child to attend, and it should aid the state in its goal to improve early childhood education.

"We're pleased that the prohibition has been lifted," said DESE spokeswoman Sarah Potter. "The complication with voluntary implementation is that you won't get every facility participating. So it doesn't give us complete information, but we're just pleased that we're taking a step forward."

Not having a quality rating system made Missouri ineligible for some grants to expand efforts in early childhood education. While there aren't any of those grants in the pipeline now, Potter is hopeful the legislation will open the state up to more opportunities.

The law should also aid the state in becoming one of the top 10 states for education, a goal DESE embarked on five years ago. Early childhood education has been widely identified as a key component for student success and is one of the cornerstones of the Top 10 by 20 campaign.

Potter said the department doesn't have a timeline for when the rating system would be created or open for preschool participation. It's also unclear who will be assessing the schools based on the new system.

The agency plans to draft a pilot, and since several other states already have quality rating systems, there will be several models for systems to draw from.

Jefferson City Public School's award-winning preschool, the Southwest Early Childhood Education Center, may join the quality rating system, said Superintendent Larry Linthacum.

"We're always looking for ways to improve," he said.

Linthacum said they do an internal rating system, and the school has a strong track record of being a high performing center. The students are given pre- and post-assessments, and the scores typically improve dramatically.

Southwest only serves high-risk students in the community and has a waiting list for admission.

Also wrapped into the education bill are several unrelated pieces:

Allowing nonpublic high schools to be certified as an A+ School;

Establishing a legislative task force on dyslexia;

Requiring an identification system for ninth-grade students to get academic and career counseling if they're at risk of not being ready for college-level work or entry-level career positions; and

Adding American civics to the current testing requirements.

A+ School

The revision to the program will allow nonpublic high schools to apply to the State Board of Education to be certified as an A+ School, if the school meets the requirements.

Students who are eligible for the A+ Scholarship program can earn two years of paid tuition at a Missouri community college or technical school.

Helias High School was ineligible previously because it's a private school, so Principal Kenya Fuemmler is excited its students will have more opportunities for affordable post-secondary school.

"We've had families of our Helias students that wanted to know more about the A+ program, and we always told them that we're ineligible," she said. "Allowing our students to be in that pool allows them to go to those schools and keep awesome students in Missouri. We're excited to get the ball rolling."

There were not other scholarships comparable to the A+ program. Some four-year public and private schools joined the A+ program, expanding the choices for students even more, she said.

Legislative task force on dyslexia

By December 2017, the bill requires DESE to develop guidelines for appropriate screening of students for dyslexia and related disorders. Schools will be required to conduct dyslexia screenings and provide "reasonable" classroom support by the 2018-19 school year. Two hours of in-service training regarding dyslexia and related disorders will be provided by districts for all practicing teachers.

It also creates a 20-member legislative task force on dyslexia, which will make recommendations to the governor, joint committee on education and other relevant state agencies, as well as recommendations for a statewide identification system, interventions and delivery of supports.

JCPS offers support for students who are medically diagnosed as dyslexic, but it currently doesn't offer formal screenings, said Assistant Superintendent for Special Services Sheila Logan.

Identification signs typically appear in kindergarten through third-grade students, she said; early identification is key. The district sees the bill as positive, but as always, anytime a new component is added into the school day, it takes away from something else.

Superintendent of Blair Oaks Jim Jones has a similar viewpoint.

"I don't know if we're totally convinced it's necessary to screen every student," he said. "No one can argue that early identification of reading problems is critical for the implementation of supplemental resources to support that student. We haven't experienced an increase of students with dyslexia, but we have experienced an increase in screenings for students."

Blair Oaks uses tools for every student that would help weed out students who may be struggling, and it also uses strategies that help every reader combat reading problems.

At-risk students

Schools will be required to implement a system that identifies ninth-grade students who are at risk of not being ready for post-secondary school or an entry-level position. The act is intended to allow students to develop a personal plan of study and create goals for their future.

Counselors at Jefferson City High School work with students who are at risk of dropping out of high school but don't have a specific system that tracks students at risk for the other measures, said Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Tammy Ridgeway.

"(The counselors) are in constant contact with the students, and they know who's falling behind in credits," she said. "We want all students to graduate."

The district will have to create a more intensive system that identifies struggling students and gives them more supports, she said.

Jones said the high school has a system that keeps track of at-risk students, and counselors work with those students to get them back on track. He said counseling and mentoring are the two critical interventions. As far as the bill goes though, it won't have much of an affect on what the school is already doing.

Civics test

Students entering ninth grade after July 2017 attending public, charter or private schools will be required to pass an exam on American civics. The 100-question test will be similar to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services test.

Students with a disability will be able to get a waiver, per a policy all schools must adopt.

Civics is already taught at Jefferson City High School, so the only new component will be another test high school students are required to take, Ridgeway said.

If any of the curriculum needs to be tweaked to better suit what's required on the test, then the school will make adjustments, she said.

Jones said Blair Oaks sophomores are already required to pass a Missouri Constitution, U.S. Constitution and American government end-of-course exam to graduate. Students may have to take a fourth exam to remedy the new civics requirement.

"Ultimately, we'll be anxious to see where this fourth assessment falls into place with our current curriculum and course," he said. "It goes back to the concept of assessment, assessment, assessment. There's a lot of assessment going on, and it's balancing assessment with instruction. That's the biggest challenge."

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