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Closing Early Education Gaps for At-Risk Students

Dropout prevention programs at every level.
Superintendent Cedrick Gray of the Jackson (Miss.) Public Schools high-fives a student. The district has a unique early childhood education program and plans to provide its own curriculum to 100 day-care centers in the city.

Students who are identified early as at-risk and get support like extra reading have a better chance at graduating high school. But many students are unable to access early education opportunities and, research says, fewer than half of poor children are ready for school at age 5.

“People don’t often think about preschool as [an element of] dropout prevention,” says Marty Duckenfield, spokesperson for the National Dropout Prevention Center. “They think of the surly high school kid with behavior problems—but it goes back to other issues, and one is early childhood education.”

Providing early education for children from low-income families leads to less incarceration and high graduation rates, generating $4 to $11 in benefits over a child’s lifetime for every dollar spent, according to a cost-benefit analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health. At-risk students are defined as those who are held back a grade, miss class, behave badly, who live among poverty and violence, or come from households that collect food stamps and where the parents are unemployed or don’t have a high school diploma. Another risk factor is the mother’s age: if she was 19 or younger when the student was born.

And at-risk students benefit from Head Start programs, even though the impacts for other groups fade by the end of grade three. Students from “high-risk households” had “strikingly sustained” or lasting cognitive benefits from preK through grade 3, and performed better on assessments at the end of third grade, compared to children from lower- or moderate-risk households, for whom the program had no impact on assessments.

“It’s rare when we have enough quality research that we can use the words ‘proven practice,’ but the one area we do know will absolutely positively influence children who live in poverty is a high-quality preschool experience,” says Kathleen Budge, an education professor at Boise State University and co-author of the book, “Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools.”

But fewer than 33 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality early education, according to the White House, and six states (Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania) do not require districts to offer kindergarten. With the U.S. ranked 28th out of 38 countries for 4-year-olds enrolled in early education, the nation’s district leaders are filling the gaps and bringing students from diverse educational backgrounds to the same level.

Reading Recovery

Children in poverty often come to school with a lower level of language development than their middle-class peers, says Budge. For example, by age 3, children from professional families have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, compared to 749 words for those in working-class families, and only 525 for children whose families are on welfare, according to a 1995 study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

One such intervention is Reading Recovery, a nationwide early intervention program focused on helping first graders struggling with literacy to read and write at grade level. Founded 26 years ago, the program has served over 2 million children, with 80 percent of students reaching grade level in reading by the end of the program, says Mary Anne Doyle. She is the department head of curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, and the director of Connecticut’s Reading Recovery program.

Teachers take a year-long graduate-level course to teach the program, and read with students one-on-one for 30 minutes a day for up to 20 weeks—or as long as it takes to get the student up to grade level. “What’s most important to us is to intervene before they fail, and help make up for whatever they’ve missed in their first five years of life for whatever reason,” Doyle says.

The program is difficult for many districts to implement because it takes teachers a year to learn and requires two and a half hours a day with each student, Doyle says. “But when you look at the cost-effectiveness studies, you see it’s a matter of administrators, teachers, and the public all wrapping their mind around early intervention with the intention that this investment in education dollars up front is a savings,” Doyle says.

Adjusting to Student Needs

When a student has not had access to early education, the most effective schools adjust to student needs by providing extra help when necessary via tutoring, after school, or summer help, says Budge. These schools also ensure that lessons are adjusted for students who may have fallen behind.

For example, Port Chester Middle School in New York had students struggling with reading and behavioral problems, which created safety issues. The principal focused on English language arts (ELA) as the core instruction, weaving ELA skills into every class. Mean performance levels, which had been in the state’s 30th percentile in ELA in 1999, climbed to the 80th percentile in 2005. The principal and staff also had adults monitor hallways, bathrooms, and playgrounds to create a safer environment. “They took it seriously and did it collectively, instead of it being a problem of only the assistant principal,” says William Parrett, director of the Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies at Boise State University and Budge’s co-author.

Collaborating with City Day Care

A quarter of 5-year-olds in Jackson, Miss., do not attend kindergarten. So Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Cedrick Gray is teaming up with the city’s day-care centers. In the district of 30,600 students, 89 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch and 22 percent of students dropped out in the 2009-2010 year, the latest figures available for that district. “The most important thing students take from early education programs is social adeptness—learning to go to class and sit down, line up for lunch, and clean up after yourself,” Gray says. “These are the things students who don’t have early childhood education lack when they go into kindergarten, along with being ready to do math and reading.”

Jackson has 30 pre-kindergarten classrooms and 100 city day-care centers. The district plans to provide the day-care centers with the school district curriculum.

More Opportunity

Early-education for at-risk kids may be expanding. In 2012-2013, state funding for preK programs increased by nearly 4 percent, according to the Education Commission of the States. Though it may seem small, 26 states cut K12 spending that year, while the majority increased or maintained their preK funding, the group found.

President Obama’s recent State of the Union proposal for expanding preschool eligibility has reopened the debate over early childhood education. Obama’s plan is to improve quality and expand access to preschool through a cost-sharing partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200 percent of poverty, according to a White House fact sheet.

Ultimately, the best way to support a child’s learning and development is “to understand where the child is, where they are heading, and how to get from point A to point B,” says Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “It’s not based on what the child will need to do in third grade,” Snow says, “but what they did yesterday, what they need to do tomorrow, and how to get there.”

Alison DeNisco is staff writer.