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The Push for Public Preschool

More districts are seeing the advantages of school readiness and preparing youngsters for their K12 careers.
Students in the Bright Beginnings program at Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools respond to the teacher's question during a lesson on feelings.

From selecting appropriate curricula and teachers to providing classrooms with bathrooms easily accessible to 4-year-olds, public preschool programs present challenges to districts that run the programs, which are designed to prepare children to get off to a good start when they enter kindergarten.

While a wide range of private preschool programs exist, public programs usually are free for parents who enroll their children in them, and the growing number of public programs reflects recognition by educators and parents that they improve the readiness of the children for kindergarten and the grades that follow. "The school readiness component is one of the most important aspects of preK programs," says Davida McDonald, director of state policy at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). In a speech to NAEYC's annual conference last November, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, "Tragically, a substantial achievement gap exists in America before children ever arrive for their first day of kindergarten."

But early learning that can help close the gap is "on the cusp" of transformational reform, he said, citing the "dramatic expansion" of state-funded preschool programs in the last decade. According to the latest data available from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, 27,658 public schools had prekindergarten in the 2007-2008 school year, up from about 19,000 in 2000-2001.

Enrollment in state-funded preK programs rose to 1.2 million children in 2008-2009, an increase of about 81,000 over the previous year, according to The State of Preschool 2009, the annual survey of state-funded preschool programs by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Thirty percent of children in the United States attend a state-funded preschool program at age 4, and total funding for state preK rose to more than $5 billion in 2008-2009, an increase of $446 million over the previous year, NIEER researchers found. But NIEER Executive Director W. Steven Barnett cautions that because of the economy and declining state revenues, the immediate future of state-funded preschool is "more perilous than past trends might suggest."

A girl in the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Center for Early Childhood Education in the Union City (N.J.) Schools practices spelling and drawing images.

And in early August, news surfaced that states are slashing nearly $350 million from their preK programs by next year and more cuts are likely once federal stimulus money dries up, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

And only 16 states could be verified as providing enough funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards, The State of Preschool report notes.

Preparing to Start

The Boston (Mass.) Public Schools were "gloriously unprepared" when Mayor Thomas Menino decided in 2005 that he wanted to offer universal preschool to all 4-year-olds in the city, says Jason Sachs, the district's director of early childhood education. "There was no curriculum designed for 4-year-olds in the district, so we had to figure that out," he says. And they had to prepare teachers and principals, identify classrooms for preK, and add a bathroom to each room. "So we started cranking up," he says.

Initially with 750 children in 38 classrooms, the program now serves about 2,100 children in 110 classrooms in 66 elementary schools, about three-quarters of all BPS elementary schools. For its curriculum, BPS selected Pearson's Opening the World of Learning (OWL), which is designed to build firm foundations in language and literacy skills and uses classic children's books, songs and poems to keep learning engaging. The district then added a math curriculum, Building Blocks, designed by researchers at the University of Buffalo.

While BPS invests more than $22 million annually in preschool from the mayor's school budget, it gets an additional $5 million from outside sources, including federal grants and private foundations. "We have some very generous partners," says Sachs.

Teacher Quality

Boys in the Shining Stars Preschool in the Rio Rancho (N.M.) Public Schools sort the butterfly life cycle on a light table, in part using paper eggs and chrysalis.

States should create policies that define and support preschool teacher quality, according to the report A Matter of Degrees: Preparing Teachers for the Pre-K Classroom, released in March by Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Pew Center on the States. The report concludes that educators with at least a bachelor's degree, coupled with specialized training in early childhood, are best able to foster development of the cognitive, social and emotional skills children need to be ready for kindergarten. Teachers "have to be gentle people. You can never be harsh to a child," adds Suzanne Harper, principal of the Shining Stars Preschool in the Rio Rancho (N.M.) Public Schools.

And finding the right teachers for preschool was another initial challenge in Boston. There was a feeling among principals, says Sachs, that "early childhood is where you put your weakest teachers." "We had to work with principals and tell them that is not a good idea," he says. "Preschool is where you want to put the strongest teachers, not the weakest."

BPS also added full-time paraprofessionals to work as teacher assistants in all preschool classrooms, which generally contain about 22 children. At first, the assistants were underutilized and mostly had to ensure children were sitting and listening to the teacher, Sachs explains. "We suggested that the teachers use the paraprofessionals as partners," dividing their classes into groups of four or five children, structuring activities to vary in the adult support they needed, and placing the paraprofessional in one of the groups to observe the children or "have rich conversations" with them, Sachs says.

Professional Development

District administrators add that continuing professional development for teachers as well as principals is a key to the success of preschool programs. The Union City (N.J.) Schools, which operates the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Center for Early Childhood Education, this year brought in faculty experts from Columbia University and other local higher education institutions to talk to teachers at workshops about research-based best practices in early childhood education. BPS runs a cohort model of principals in which they visit one another's schools and meet in seminars with expert consultants. Among other things, they review good practices as defined by NAEYC's accreditation standards and criteria.

Selecting the Students

Enrollment in public preschool programs is voluntary, and children must be 3 or 4 years old by a certain date, usually September 1, to be eligible for a program starting that fall. Even if they meet the age eligibility, space limitations mean that not all children are accepted. With witnesses observing in the Shining Stars Preschool in New Mexico, says Harper, "we literally pick the names from a box. It's really hard to tell parents that their child didn't get accepted. It kills me every year."

But she accepts some students from a waiting list throughout the school year when enrolled students' families move away. The West Hartford (Conn.) Public Schools, with preschool programs in three schools, selects students through a lottery based partly on their families' financial needs.

For its preschool funding, the district depends largely on tuition paid by parents, which will be up to $7,200 per student in 2010-2011, depending on families' ability to pay, with additional support from other resources, including the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools. In a total enrollment of 48 students this fall, families of 24 children will be expected to pay full tuition, says Superintendent Karen List.

Up to about 6,000 children usually are found age-eligible for preschool in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools, but the district can accept only about 4,000, and those with the "greatest educational need," determined by intensive prescreening, are at the top of the list, says Julie Babb, who directs the program.

In Boston, "everyone has the same opportunity" to get into the district's preschools, with "no priorities for any particular group," says Sachs. But placing them in the right schools is a "complex issue," he admits. "What you want to avoid is segregating low-income children with other low-income children. The model we should all be striving for is diversity in both ethnicity and income."

Culture Changes

Beyond curriculum and the quality of their teachers, districts have to pay attention to other details important to the success of preschool programs. As BPS retrofitted its school buildings to accommodate preschool classrooms, bathrooms were a challenge, says Sachs.

It cost from $5,000 to $30,000 each, depending on the proximity of plumbing, to install one bathroom, with low seats and sinks, next to each classroom. "If you do not have a bathroom that is pretty close to the classroom, 30 minutes of your academic day can be spent going to and from the bathroom as a large group," Sachs explains.

One need that was overlooked in preparing to launch Boston's program was caring for children with working parents after the school day ends. "A well-coordinated after-school program should be part of the design" of a successful preschool, Sachs says.

Youngsters in the Shining Stars Preschool in the Rio Rancho (N.M.) Public Schools water bean plants they each grew. They kept a sketch journal of the weekly growth that took place.

Not having one in Boston is "a real weakness for us," he continues, but parents continue nevertheless to enroll their children in preschool, with demand increasing about 25 percent annually. Sachs says creating a successful preschool program also requires changing a district's culture, which is traditionally built around specific subject areas, to be more "holistic."

"In public education in general, you usually have an adult talking to kids. But having young kids sit for 30 minutes listening to a teacher is not the best way to enhance their learning ability at that age," Sachs says. Instead of teaching subjects in blocks, "it all has to be integrated" for preschoolers, like focusing on "wind and water, or shadows and reflections, and then organizing those concepts around a theme. We had to do a lot of work breaking with traditional classroom thinking," Sachs says.

Results Are In

Administrators say children who participate in public preschool programs seem uniformly to surpass children who don't participate in basic learning programs before they enter kindergarten. Outside evaluation by a local university found that the children in Boston's public preschool program peform much stronger in vocabulary (four points higher on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test) than similar children who do not enroll in a Boston preschool program. "This is a big deal because vocabulary is a key predictor in later reading and comprehension," says Sachs.

In the Union City Schools, kindergarteners in the district's preschool program are already reading and writing, while the non-preK kids generally are not, says Adriana Birne, the district's principal of early childhood education. "They can structure sentences and paragraphs. It's really amazing."

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.