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The ABCs of Early Ed

Experts believe reducing funds for early childhood education is suicide. "During the first three ye

Use it or lose it. It's a cute saying, but it is particularly fitting for the brain-especially in small, developing brains. "During the first three years of life, there's an overabundance of activity in the brain," says Kenneth A. Wesson, education consultant at Neuroscience in San Jose. "If brain cells don't find a job, they will be eliminated. There is no welfare in the brain. These brain cells seek a job to do. They go dormant or are eliminated if kids don't have specific kinds of experiences and nothing to build on."

Brain cells support specific functions. So if a child is capable of learning how to read but has no chance to process sounds or language, he or she will never be able to learn how to "language" like normal people, Wesson says. "It's critically important that kids have as many different kinds of rich experiences and get to talk about those experiences during the early years," Wesson adds. "And that's the hallmark of early childhood education programs."

Children in high-quality, early childhood education score better later on in cognitive, reading, and math tests, are more ambitious in work, and more healthy in general. But federal and state governments, amid tight cash flow, are holding back or reducing funds for early education. Education suicide? In so many words, experts think so.

"I think our data strongly suggest that it would be a mistake if you're looking for some place to save money ... early childhood education is not a good place to start," says Frances Campbell, senior scientist at FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"If we want to solve issues later in life you need to invest in kids in early development," says Jessica Sowa, research associate on a project for I-PIECE, Investigating Partnerships in Early Childhood Education. I-PIECE assesses local sites and examines collaborations between Head Start, preschool programs and childcare providers receiving public subsidies.

I-PIECE is studying 20 early childcare collaborations-10 in New York and 10 in Virginia. Sowa says it's difficult to generalize across all providers, but it's been a "positive experience for the 20 lead organizations." For example, a non-profit childcare center works with a local school district, which can provide money or technical help or place a teacher in the classroom.

Experts today still quote the first three major early childhood education studies to make their point. From 1962-1967, 123 poor black children in Ypsilanti, Mich., ages 3 and 4 and at risk of failing school, participated in High/Scope Educational Research Foundation Perry Preschool study, undergoing a half-day, high quality preschool program. By age 27, participants had fewer drug dealing arrests, higher earning and economic status, more educational success, were more committed to marriage and delayed parenting compared to their counterparts without preschool.

The Chicago Child-Parent Centers, which started in 1986 and was based on half-day programs in Chicago schools, and the Abecedarian Early Childhood Education project, a full-day program in middle-class Chapel Hill in the 1970s, showed similar results.

And the economic benefits show that for every $1 spent on pre-school, society gained $4 in benefits, according to the Abecedarian project; society gained $7, according to the Chicago study; and society gained $9, according to the Perry Preschool project. Benefits come in the way of more earnings, less welfare, less crime and less anti-social behavior, for example.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University shows that Abecedarian participants could make about $143,000 more over their lifetimes than those who do not take part in the program. And school districts can save more than $11,000 per child because they are less likely to need special or remedial education.

Even with these studies, showing such gains behind early childhood education, the Bush Administration last spring proposed a budget that cut funds or kept them level for early childcare programs, including Head Start and the Child Care and Development Grant program, which has helped welfare and low-income families pay for early education. At the same time, Congress is considering a bill, PreKindergarten Access Act of 2003, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last spring. It would provide grants to states to establish, expand or enhance pre-K programs.

Meanwhile, 23 states are cutting or limiting childcare and pre-K funding, according to a General Accounting Office report released in May. "More families need assistance and fewer and fewer families are going to get it," says Adele Robinson, senior director of public policy and communications at National Association for the Education of Young Children. "We're moving backwards."

Although remediation programs are thought to help struggling students, they often give people "false hope," says James Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and Nobel Prize in Economics winner in 2000. He notes the GED program, explaining it's "not anywhere near the equivalency of a high school degree in the labor market." "We found that school programs ... especially for disadvantaged children, ages 7 or 8, rarely caught up," he says.

North Carolina pushes for high quality

In 1993 in North Carolina, a task force was established to consider ways to improve education and the state economy. Based on studies, officials found that high-quality, early childhood education pays off in the long run, says Karen Ponder, executive director of Smart Start and president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children, oversight agency for Smart Start. "The challenge is high quality," Ponder adds.

While the state supports early childhood education, officials still struggled to hold on to money. In 2000, North Carolina funded $260 million of early childcare and education programs, the highest amount in state history. This year, only $202.3 million is allocated for the Early Care Education Initiative.

Programs are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 being good enough to meet a child's developmental needs and 5 being the highest quality. Programs graded at 3 and higher receive state funds and have performance standards tied to them. "We're very strict," Ponder says. "There has to be measurable outcomes."

While state funds don't cover all expenses, other funds come in via business people, wealthy donors, foundations, local partnerships and federal grants. Smart Start has raised about $200 million since 1996.

The county, private providers, and churches often run childcare. And parents pay part of program costs based on a sliding scale. "Even the poorest families pay something," she says.

Also in North Carolina, Gov. Mike Easley started More at Four, which kicked off in the spring of 2002 and is free to children at high risk of school failure. More than 5,000 children in 90 counties are in the program. Some children receive care in public schools or charter schools, with others in Head Start programs or local community childcare centers.

Quality counts

About 74 percent of the 3- to 5-year-olds, or 6.8 million preschoolers, get some type of childcare on a regular basis, according to the Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes study.

But few states have early childhood curriculum requirements. In 30 states, the childcare provider or teacher can take care of children without any training and experience. But 45 states have state-funded pre-K initiatives and Georgia reaches every 4-year-old. Twenty states require teachers in pre-K programs to have at least four years of college.

Considering cost, families in the U.S. generally pay 60 percent of childcare costs, with the government and private sector paying the remainder. It could cost parents $4,000 to $10,000 every year. In contrast, families pay about 23 percent for public college education, with the government and private sector funding the rest, Sowa says.

The average cost of childcare for a 4-year-old is more than the average annual cost of public college tuition in all but two states, Rhode Island and Vermont, Sowa says.

"So you see, families have to pay for this themselves. Especially for low-income families, childcare is a huge issue," Sowa says. "And most childcare costs are related to the cost of teachers. That's why salaries are kept very low-families can't afford to pay for them."

The national average salary for a childcare worker is $16,980 and the average salary for a preschool teacher is $20,940. The national average salary for a kindergarten teacher is $41,100. And some experts complain that a few hours of preschool is not enough, saying working families need full-day.

"If we truly believe as a nation that the early years are critically important to later school success and that they need to get a lot of skills in those years and you need to get someone who is well-trained to identify those needs and be responsible to their needs, if you're paying someone $16,000-which is barely above the poverty line-you can't attract people with the best degree," Sowa says.

The Children's Defense Fund fears families lack the choice of high-quality programs. "Even when families can afford the care they need, it is often unavailable," says Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of Children's Defense Fund.

Well, in New York City, at the Family Center at Bank Street College of Education, teachers are compensated. A rookie teacher can make roughly $32,000 a year, or $35,000 with a master's degree, and up to $72,000 for 30 years of experience. "I think that taking care of very young infants and toddlers and their families is a very complicated task," says Amy Flynn, director of the center. "It's not just about the every day kind-of-daily-living-thing and the basic needs of feeding and napping, but a lot is built into all the activities that have to do with helping children feel good about themselves and feel confident in the world. And to help them learn. It's the base of development."

New York's Universal Pre-K

In 1997, state-funded Universal Pre-Kindergarten came to New York. And despite Gov. George Pataki's plan to cut funding for UPK programs last spring, the state legislature replaced those funds after more than 200,000 people signed a petition to restore funding. While pre-K is much more a "household word" than four or five years ago, says Karen Schimke, president of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, there still is a long way to go. "I'd like to think that each year, public knowledge becomes greater and the outcry becomes clearer-You take your life in your hands if you mess with our pre-K," Schimke says.

For every dollar spent on early childhood education "you see a $7 return," Schimke says. "No business in America is getting that kind of return."

More superintendents are also realizing they should be starting earlier. In the William Floyd School District in Mastic Beach, N.Y., a Long Island blue-collar community, preschool is clearly an important part of a child's education.

More than 10 years ago, the district started an Echo program, where about 60 preschool children go to the high school every day for two and a half hours and high school students, in the Home and Careers program, run preschool activities under a certified teacher's supervision.

Under UPK, 201 children in the district, or about 30 percent of the district's 4-year-olds, were housed this past year in private provider settings outside school. A part-time coordinator, paid through the UPK program, visits the sites, observes teachers, and aligns the programs. The district supervises curriculum and programs, according to Superintendent Rich Hawkins. "I was pretty clear about my expectations for the programs as well as feedback from the programs if they weren't working effectively," he says.

The key part of preschool is a qualified teacher, who has at least a strong background and training in early childhood education. Hawkins adds that balanced programs are important-which combine play and fun with academics, developing a child's physical and artistic sides.

Years ago, 50 percent to 70 percent of the district's children entering kindergarten were deficient in literacy skills. Now, he says, that number is declining. "It's important to the community because it addresses a real need," Hawkins says. "I think it's pretty clear in this day and age that more often than not, parents are working. And giving kids a safe, well-organized, and well-structured environment so they can grow is absolutely imperative."

Bank Street Family Center Programs, New York City

This urban-based program started in the early 1970s at Bank Street College of Education. The center serves children as young as 6 months up to 4 years old. Care can be used in conjunction with babysitters. An integrated model serves children in Head Start centers, homes or other childcare centers. Some teachers have master's degrees with certification in early childhood education. Amy Flynn, director of the family center, says when children leave the program, they know how to live together in a community, know about seasons, how to write their names, and know the difference between the names Maya and Mary, for example.

No. of students: 40 children center-based, 50 in the community.

Staff: 13 center-based, including teachers and family support coordinator. In addition, there are therapists and part-time staff. Eleven teachers are in the community and home-based program. There is also a program director and assistant, psychologist, as well as speech and language, physical and occupational therapists.

Cost/funding: $23,785 for center-based, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. September to July. Home-based programs for special education are funded by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Socio-economic status: Wide range, from families living in poverty to upper class.

Greatest attraction: Professional staff and ongoing staff development. Connected to Bank Street College of Education. Inclusion model. About a third of the students need home and community-based care.

Program evolution: From a small staff at the center to a community program.

Proof it works: "Parents seem really happy," Director Amy Flynn says.

Pre-Kindergarten at Risk of Academic Failure, Illinois

This statewide pre-K program runs in various communities, but in Dallas City Community Unit District 336, a rural district west of the Mississippi River, more than the children benefit. The program, which started in 1988, is a virtual site for students learning to become early childhood teachers at Western Illinois University, believed to be the only virtual program of its kind in the U.S.

No. of students: 18

Staff: Housewright and a teacher's aide.

Cost/funding: $2,000-$3,000 per child, paid for with funds from Illinois Early Childhood Block Grant, unique to the state.

Socio-economic status: Mainly low-income families.

Greatest attractions: Parent involvement. Monthly parent meetings encourage parents to know their child's needs. She also welcomes them to visit the school and ask questions. Standards. The program follows the Illinois Early Learning Standards, which is rich in literature and books. Science is also stressed, as children learn about butterflies and pumpkin patches.

Program evolution: Parents and community members initially misunderstood it for a special needs program. They learned to trust the program and see it as building block to kindergarten and "support system."

Proof it works: A parent group six years ago wanted to continue a parent group when their children entered kindergarten. "It says to me that parents ... want to be a part of the child's learning," Housewright says.

Bright Beginnings, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, N.C.

The suburban/urban preschool program offers a comprehensive curriculum that addresses different aspects of development. The day includes four literacy circles, which build on themes each week. Children learn the relation of seeing and hearing words. Bright Beginnings was born in 1996 after school officials saw major reading gaps. Kindergartners were "way behind their peers" and couldn't catch up, says Ellen Edmonds, director of early childhood in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

No. of students: 3,500 statewide, 3,200 of whom are in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.

Staff: 188 teachers, 188 teacher assistants. And a host of literacy coaches, psychologists, social workers, and family advocates who conduct home visits.

Cost/funding: $5,800 per child. Most children are covered by Title I funds for a 6 1/2-hour day.

Socio-economic status: Most are low-income, minority and some have special needs or are learning English.

Greatest attraction: Curriculum. Child-centered but literacy-focused with integrated assessments.

Program evolution: Recent research results pushed the program to stress more phonological awareness, such as oral language and vocabulary.

Proof it works: "The children entering kindergarten are on par with their peers," Edmonds says.

Angela Pascopella,, is features editor.