A Highland Elementary School student races off the school bus on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. (Moriah Ratner)

Thousands of Salem-Keizer kids head back to school next week, trading summer camps or afternoons at the park for backpacks and pencils.

Parents have many options to learn about their child’s academic process, from the district’s ParentVue website to direct contact with teachers. With such a wealth of information, parents may be challenged to know what to focus on.

What academic benchmarks matter most for students? Salem Reporter talked to assistant superintendents Linda Myers and Kraig Sproles, and Lisa Harnisch, executive director of the Marion & Polk Early Learning Hub, about what research shows.

These are the benchmarks they say best predict how prepared students are to finish high school. They’re what district administrators track to judge how well they’re doing, but parents play a role in influencing their students. Here’s what to focus on - and how you can help the students in your life stay on track.

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Early literacy for kindergarten

The measure: The number of letters and letter sounds students coming into kindergarten recognize.

Why it matters: Students heading into school with a grasp of letters in sounds have an easier time learning and are more likely to be fluid readers by third grade.

Kindergarten students at Swegle Elementary School play before class begins on Sept. 12, 2018 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Across Oregon and in Salem-Keizer, there are stark differences in what students know when they come into kindergarten. Students in wealthier areas tend to recognize more letters. Across Oregon, kids on average know the sounds for eight letters when entering kindergarten, state data shows. Salem-Keizer’s average is just five, with wide gaps between its high and low poverty schools.

The Early Learning Hub works to close that gap by making more free and low-cost resources available to parents and educating the community about the importance of pre-kindergarten learning.

Reading to kids daily helps develop literacy, Harnisch said. Recognizing the letters in the alphabet is also important, but sounding them out tends to get overlooked more often by parents.

“That is one that we consistently see as being a more troublesome area,” she said.

Growing those skills doesn’t mean grilling kids with flashcards. Parents can incorporate learning into play, asking children to name what they see outside or try to sound out words while in the grocery store.

High-quality preschool helps, and the Marion & Polk Early Learning Hub can help parents find free or low-cost local options, Harnish said.

The Hub also explains on its website what skills children need to succeed in kindergarten and how adults can help them. Those include in-person “Ready for Kindergarten” workshops and links to apps and other websites to help parents play with their children in ways that promote learning.

Kindergarten attendance

The measure: Students who attend at least 90% of school during kindergarten.

Why it matters: Students with regular attendance in kindergarten and first grade are far more likely to achieve standard goals in third grade, according to studies from Attendance Works.

Hallman students gather during the school's morning assembly. (Fred Joe/Special to Salem Reporter)

Kids who aren’t in school can’t learn, and across Oregon, school districts are focusing more on boosting attendance to make sure kids are on track. The first six weeks of kindergarten are especially important, Myers said. Missing school regularly in those early weeks “sets a trajectory.”

In Salem-Keizer schools, about 77% of kindergarteners attended school regularly last year, up from 72% in 2017-18. That’s because of a districtwide push at every school, including sending postcards home to families when students show lagging attendance and having school employees reach out directly to struggling parents.

How can you help?

Families struggle to get kids to school for a variety of reasons, but sleeping in is a big reason kids miss kindergarten at the beginning of the year, Sproles said. Parents can help by starting to move bedtime back before school begins so kids are used to going to bed while it’s still light out and getting up in time for school.

Reading by 3rd grade

The measure: Kids who can read “proficiently” by the end of third grade, as measured by testing.

Why it matters: Nationally, students reading by third grade are four times more likely to graduate high school than those who aren’t.

Highland Elementary 2nd grade teacher Becky Montgomery works with a student during a computer math exercise on Wednesday March 13, 2019. (Fred Joe/Special to Salem Reporter)

Third grade is where educators draw a line between kids learning to read and “reading to learn” - using their reading to solve math problems and understand science and history. Students who can’t read fluently by third grade miss out not only in English, but fall behind more easily in other subjects.

State tests are a blunt instrument to measure a skill that exists on a spectrum, and Salem-Keizer struggles to hit the target: only about one in three third-graders passed in 2018. The state average is 47%. The district also tracks student literacy in Spanish for students in bilingual programs - by second grade, about six in ten are on track in their native language.

To boost those numbers, elementary teachers test students regularly to identify kids who are struggling. Most have time set aside daily for small group help, where students are divided by skill level to work on reading.

At home, reading with kids and encouraging them to read remain important, and parents with concerns should also talk to their child’s teacher for help.

Middle school math proficiency

The measure: Students who pass all middle school math classes.

Why it matters: Nationally, only 13% of kids who fail a math class in middle school will graduate high school on time. In Salem-Keizer, that number is worse: only 7% graduate on time, Myers said.

Judson Middle School students in a seventh grade language arts on Oct. 30, 2018. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Math learning is cumulative, so failing a class means a student will likely struggle with more advanced topics. Because students need three years of math at or above algebra to graduate, an early setback can make it harder to progress.

Salem-Keizer doesn’t have a districtwide count of how many students fail a middle school math course. Among eighth graders in the district, only four in ten hit the state standard in math in 2018. Two years ago, the district added an extra class period to middle school schedules, which gives students who need help with math an extra period for help.

But parents also play a role. Sproles, a former math teacher, said even if parents don’t remember their own school days well enough to help with homework, the messages they send their kids about math matter. While it’s assumed every kid will learn to read, the perception remains that some people are not “math people” and can’t get better, he said.

“We don’t say, ‘I’m just not going to learn to read,’” Sproles said. Math is “a learnable skill just like every other learnable skill.”

Parents can also encourage their kids to get help using free online videos on Khan Academy or similar sites.

9th grade on track

The measure: Students who earn 6 credits toward high school graduation as freshmen.

Why it matters: Falling behind on credits early in high school makes the path to graduation much harder.

Esperanza "Espi" Martinez, 19, works on an assignment about poverty with help from McKay High School assistant principal Ricardo Larios in the school library on Aug. 13, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Oregon requires 24 credits to earn a high school diploma, so earning at least six each year of high school is key. About 87% of high school freshmen in the district hit that target in 2018.

But Salem-Keizer has another goal administrators say matters just as much: passing freshman English and math.

Students who fall behind in history or science have a second chance. Oregon only requires three years of each subject to graduate, and a student who fails world history can still do well in U.S. history. But English is required for four years, so failing a semester means taking two English courses later on to make it up. Math is cumulative: a student who can’t pass algebra I isn’t likely to do well in algebra II.

As kids move to high school, parents sometimes take a hands-off approach, but Sproles said making sure they have good routines and study habits is important. A student may fall behind because they don’t understand the material, but simply not turning in assignments or keeping track of homework is a big cause of failure. Parents can affect each of those.

“The zero is killing kids left and right,” Myers said.

She said parents can look over their student’s records online to spot if assignments are missing and encourage kids to turn something in - even if it’s only half done - to avoid losing credit.

Reaching out to teachers with concerns can also help both the parent and teacher catch a problem early.

“Freshmen teachers would love it if parents emailed them,” Myers said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.