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Early childhood re-energized

Amid renewed pre-K push, a look at districts that have established robust preschools
Pre-K students in Tulsa Public Schools work at a sensory table.
Pre-K students in Tulsa Public Schools work at a sensory table.

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio neared his 100th day in office, he could already boast of an achievement that may not only shape his legacy, but also take part in transforming the nation’s largest school system: universal prekindergarten.

De Blasio, who entered office promising to make full-day pre-K available for all 4-year-olds in the city, pressured the state legislature to allocate funding for programs statewide.

After much tussling, New York lawmakers approved $300 million for the city, some $40 million shy of what de Blasio estimated pre-K programs would cost.

This September, de Blasio plans to expand the city’s pre-K program to include 53,000 students. By 2015, full-day pre-K will be available to about 73,000 students—all of the children in the city who need it, according to a report from the mayor’s office.

De Blasio’s efforts to expand pre-K are part of a nationwide trend, with dozens of cities and states, governors and city council members considering ways to boost early childhood learning programs.

Obama’s push

The recent focus on pre-K has been spurred, in large part, by President Barack Obama, who has made early childhood education a centerpiece of his administration. In the White House budget proposal, Obama seeks money for his “Preschool for All” plan to expand early childhood education to low- and middle-income 4-year-olds. The 10-year, $76 billion program would be funded with a tobacco tax increase. 

As Obama noted in his January State of the Union address, “Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.”

Growing support for pre-K

The expansion of early childhood education is becoming the go-to imperative for some states and districts to improve overall student success.

“This is a parade I think you all want to be in front of, not behind,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told members of the National Governor’s Association at a meeting last February.

In Seattle, City Councilman Tim Burgess wants to make preschool available to the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds. In San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro succeeded in getting voters to approve a sales tax increase that will help fund preschool for more than 22,000 4-year-olds in the next eight years.

And in Texas, pre-K has emerged as a leading issue in the state’s gubernatorial race between Republican Gregg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis.

In California, a $1.5 billion proposal to expand free preschool to all California 4-year-olds was approved by a senate education committee in April. In Hawaii, meanwhile, Gov. Neil Abercrombie is seeking $4.5 million to open 32 preschool classrooms to serve 640 children.

But exactly what defines a “high quality” program? And, in an era of tighter budgets and shrinking resources for education, how do strapped-for-cash school districts carve out such programs? Tulsa Public Schools, the so-called “Abbott districts” in New Jersey and Des Plaines Community Consolidated School District 62 in the Chicago suburbs stand as models of early childhood instruction and funding.

Tulsa Public Schools

Even in a state given high marks for early childhood education, the Tulsa Public Schools stands out. Oklahoma, which in 1998 started one of the first state-funded preschool programs for all 4-year-olds, now serves over 40,000 children.

In Tulsa, the largest district in northeastern Oklahoma, there are about 2,900 students in pre-K and about 4,000 kindergarten students, comprising about 75 percent of eligible 4-year-olds in the area. The child-staff ratio is 10:1, and all teachers must be certified and have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

Oklahoma preschools, including Tulsa, follow a state-mandated curriculum that contains standards for core subject areas and is aligned with the K12 curriculum.

“Our 4-year-old classroom is considered the same as any other class. We have standards for 8-year-olds and we have academic standards for 4-year-olds,” says Andy McKenzie, assistant to the superintendent for early childhood services.

Researchers at Georgetown University, who have been studying Tulsa’s initiative for more than a decade, have found that students enrolled in preschool were better prepared in reading, writing and math.

Tulsa developed its program with a mix of state, federal and local funding. A $33.6 million bond issue passed in 2010, for instance, was used to retrofit classrooms for the youngest learners. Rooms were redesigned to include learning centers and teachers’ desks were placed near student work areas so they could easily help and monitor students. Cubbies also were installed, and more space was added to store games and puzzles.

In addition to about $4,000 per pupil in state funding, the district also receives about $3.2 million in Title I money to help fund full-day pre-K in eligible schools, which include 51 of Tulsa’s 55 elementary schools, McKenzie says.

Community partnerships with local day care providers, including faith-based and non-profit organizations, are another pivotal part of the puzzle, McKenzie says. The partnerships allow parents to have more choice in where their child goes to a school.

Some might prefer smaller early childhood centers while others might be interested in choosing a faith-based provider or a program located inside a larger elementary school, Mckenzie says.

Abbott districts

The landscape of early childhood education in New Jersey changed with the state Supreme Court’s “Abbott decisions.” Those rulings, issued over a period of 30 years beginning in 1985, declared New Jersey’s school funding method as unconstitutional because it left 31 poor districts unable to provide quality education for students.

The court ordered New Jersey lawmakers to revamp funding methods and to provide remedial measures—including high quality early education—in those districts. Now, 15 years after preschool was implemented in Abbott districts, children in the state-funded programs show significant gains in literacy, language, math and science that continue into fourth and fifth grade, according to a recent study. The gains are larger for children who spend two years in preschool.

According to the study, conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University: “The Abbott Preschool program’s effects on achievement and school success are larger than has been found for less well-funded programs with weaker standards.”

It took several years for the programs to get onto the right footing, says Ellen Wolock, director of New Jersey’s Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Education.

Only 6,000 children attended the program in its first year, with roughly 20,000 children enrolled by 2003-2004. Next school year, officials expect to serve 45,600—90 percent of eligible students. In the fiscal 2015 budget, the state has allocated about $614.5 million, or just under $13,500 per child, for the Abbott preschool programs.

Wolock attributes the slow start to a lack of facilities, staffing and standards.“We didn’t have any set of standards for programs to follow. People didn’t know what to do,” Wolock says. “People were scrambling to figure out how to set up a high-quality program, but didn’t know what that looked like.”

The full-day preschool, which is open to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the Abbott districts, now follows a comprehensive state-required curriculum aligned with K12 standards. Class size is limited to 15 students, with a certified teacher and a teaching assistant. A “master teacher” or coach also visits classrooms to provide support and guidance.

About half of the classes are housed in schools. But the rest are offered in child care centers, which provide extra space for already overcrowded schools and create a sense of familiarity and continuity for students used to going to community childcare facilities, Wolock says.

Child care teachers who were not certified were given a scholarship to a local college. Those who did not meet a deadline for certification were offered a teaching assistant position.

Des Plaines community district

With its painted gold and red swirls, crawl spaces that resemble hollowed-out tree trunks and a curving, turquoise-colored slide, the Des Plaines Community Consolidated School District’s Early Learning Center looks more like an amusement park than a school. Structured around this colorful courtyard playground, the building is spacious and light-filled thanks to oversized windows.

Classrooms feature learning centers and vivid colors, while separate math, nature/science and literacy centers provide space for hands-on projects.

The Early Learning Center opened in August 2011 and houses all 600 of the K8 district’s early childhood students. It was designed to be as child-friendly and student-centered as possible, says Superintendent Jane Westerhold.

It houses special needs and bilingual preschools as well as the state-funded Services to At-Risk Youth, better known as STAR. It also contains tuition-based junior kindergarten for 4-year-olds and extended-day kindergarten. All instruction is aligned with the district’s curriculum.

The decision to consolidate the programs in one space was the result of a master planning process, which brought in 400 to 500 school and community stakeholders who agreed that combining programs under one roof would benefit students. The 51,000 square-foot facility was constructed using $13 million from a $109 million bond issue designated to upgrade all the buildings in the district.

“Most of the times when serving these kids you are just trying to use space you have and make it work,” says Westerhold. “We were able to build it to make it more appropriate and more efficient.” The Early Learning Center, which has a waiting list for students, recruits teachers “who just believe in early childhood education and love little kids and, who can deal with all the complications that come with working with little kids every day,” Westerhold says.

Another important element to success is parental involvement, Westerhold says. For example, “Baby Book Time” sessions give parents a chance to play games, read stories and sing songs with kids 2 and under.

“We believe strongly that parents and the school district need to work together to support the child,” she says. “It’s good to start the concept very early on.”

Monica Rhor is a freelance writer based in Texas