The following article was originally published by the Arizona School Boards Association
By Tracey Benson, ASBA Director of Communications
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It may be an old saw, but it well summarizes what many education leaders across Arizona and the nation believe to be true about the relationship between college and career readiness and early education – the learning and experiences that happen between birth and age 8.
Current research about brain development and early learning backs those beliefs, according to Karen Woodhouse, chief program officer at First Things First, a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help children be successful once they enter kindergarten. For example:
- 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before they enter kindergarten, and the quality of a child’s interactions with adult caregivers – from parents to childcare providers and preschool teachers – lays the foundation for a lifetime.
- Differences in children’s vocabulary first start to appear at 18 months.
- A child’s vocabulary, attention and general knowledge at 3 and 4 years old correlates to their reading comprehension levels at ages 9 and 10.
With the implementation of new, more rigorous academic standards in Arizona and the Move On When Reading law, which requires students to be reading at a sufficient level before they can be promoted from third to fourth grade, the stakes have been raised for preparing children for K-12 success.
Dr. Debbie Pischke, director of the Peoria Unified School District’s preschool program for the past 19 years, and a regional partnership council chair for First Things First, says early childhood education is more important today than ever before. Peoria USD serves approximately 1,000 preschool students through 40 programs on 15 campuses. Scholarships are available for more than one-fourth of those children through a grant from First Things First.
“In education we talk about the achievement gap a lot, but there was a readiness gap before there was an achievement gap,” she says. “We know that the brain a child brings to kindergarten started way before they got there. The pathways for learning were established by age three.”
Pischke and others say that achievement gap may widen if early education isn’t more fully addressed.
While preschool attendance is not the only indicator of readiness, it is one. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2013 Kids Count report, 46 percent of all U.S. children attend preschool. In Arizona, only 33 percent do.
That could become a bigger problem. “Kindergarten is no longer about reciting the ABCs,” Pischke says. “Today when children come into kindergarten, they need to know how to work with other children, listen to an adult other than mom or dad, pay attention, demonstrate persistence, be able to control their emotions and body appropriately for their age.”
They also need pre-math and pre-literacy skills.
She repeats a saying she once heard at an early childhood conference to drive home her point: “The speaker said, ‘You can’t climb the ladder of success if the first rung is broken.’”
Coconino County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Kelty also is concerned that without more aggressive early preparation and greater access to early childhood programs, the achievement gap will grow. “We see too many children starting behind, and that gap is rarely closed,” says Kelty. “We’re so used to blaming the K-12 system (for this), instead of asking how we can provide more access to quality early education options for children and their parents.”
A community survey conducted this year in Coconino County revealed that 53 percent of children in the county enter kindergarten unprepared to learn what is now expected of them. “Our county data and our statewide data are reflecting that (lack of preparedness) in our students’ academic performance,” he says.
Woodhouse, Pischke and Kelty all note that the academic and social costs to children can be high if they enter kindergarten unprepared. School districts incur financial costs, specifically those associated with remediation and retention. These education experts contend that rich early childhood experiences, whether at home, or through preschool or quality childcare settings, can reduce those costs.
A growing cadre of advocates from business, economic development, government and the social service sectors say the positive effects of investment in early childhood education are even more far reaching. Rob Grunewald is one of those advocates. An economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, he will speak before a group of Arizona citizens that will gather this fall for the annual Arizona Town Hall, where the topic of early childhood education in Arizona will be explored in-depth.
“Research shows that investments in early childhood education can return up to $16 for every $1 invested through reduced need for welfare assistance, increased income tax revenue, less burden on the criminal justice system and fewer children needing remedial education services,” says Grunewald. “Children and their families benefit from these investments, but the majority of financial benefits accrue to society and taxpayers.”
According to research cited by First Things First, children exposed to rich experiences in early childhood are 80 percent more likely to graduate high school, 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime by age 18 and 40 percent less likely to be held back a grade.
That message about broad societal benefits is reverberating in many parts of Arizona. As part of its economic development strategy and in light of the results of the county’s recent community education survey, Coconino County has invested nearly $350,000 in a parent education program focused on the early years. Parenting College, developed and implemented by the Coconino County Superintendent of Schools Office as part of its Transformative Learning Center, focuses on nine topics, including brain development, safety, discipline and nurturing pre-academic skills through reading and vocabulary. The classes are delivered to teen parents attending Ponderosa High School, the county’s accommodation school, through a partnership with a high school in the Flagstaff Unified School District, and most recently through community sessions offered on Saturdays.
For these reasons and others, school district leaders increasingly are looking for ways to engage and influence parents and provide foundational learning and socialization experiences to children before kindergarten. “The model many people think of is to begin thinking about children as learners when they start kindergarten, but more and more school districts are taking advantage of opportunities to connect with families of young children before that point,” says Woodhouse. “It’s really important for the leaders on a school board to be familiar with the variety of ways that can be done.”
She emphasizes that meeting needs of children and families in ways that make sense for the local community is essential. One strategy does not fit all.
In addition to offering preschool programs that serve students with developmental delays, which is required by law, many school districts are extending the opportunity to other local children by braiding state and federal funds with grants from organizations like First Things First that provide scholarships to students whose families would not otherwise be able to afford preschool. First Things First currently provides 51 Arizona school districts – from small and rural, to large and urban – with grants for preschool scholarships.
Since opening a preschool four years ago, the small, rural Topock Elementary School District in Mohave County has seen kindergarten readiness jump. The 20-student preschool is offered free to 3- and 4-year-olds through a grant from First Things First. “It has become the great equalizer,” says John Warren, superintendent of the district that serves 140 students overall. “That pipeline of success stemming from the preschool is evident.” (See page 19 for an in-depth look at Topock’s program and the results it is producing.)
The Mesa Unified School District repurposed an elementary school this year as a preschool center. The school board voted last year to convert the campus because of declining enrollment. The Jordan Center for Early Education will house special education preschool, state-sponsored programs and the district’s tuition-based program, along with a “wrap-around care” option for working parents.
The Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson also has a preschool and early education campus, created after the district closed one of its elementary schools two years ago. All its preschool programs, which serve 400 children, are housed there.
Some districts and JTEDs offer fee-based, licensed preschool programs on their campuses that do double duty by providing high school students opportunities to earn career and technical education credits and valuable skills by working in the preschool programs.
The Pima County JTED is one of them. “We’re training the next generation of preschool teachers,” says Greg D’Anna, director of public relations.
West-MEC, a JTED that serves students in Maricopa County, funds early childhood education/education professions programs at 23 high schools in the West Valley. One of those schools, Apollo High School in the Glendale Union High School District, offers COOP – the Child Oriented Occupational Program. The program gives the older students hands-on experience by working one hour a day in the preschool along with an additional hour for classroom instruction and lesson planning. It gives the preschoolers a leg up on kindergarten.
Similarly, the East Valley Institute of Technology offers its early childhood/education professions students the opportunity to learn and work in a childcare center, but it has done so by partnering with a private preschool operating a center on its campus.
Other districts have created family resource centers on school campuses that offer parents of pre-K children access to information and materials to help prepare their children for school success.
Some districts blend a variety of approaches. Co-located on Sunnyside USD’s preschool campus is the district’s award-winning, research-based, free and voluntary Parents as Teachers – or PAT – program. PAT serves expectant parents and parents of children birth to 5 years old residing in the Sunnyside district. It provides them with information on the latest research in neuroscience and child development, support and strategies during the crucial early years to strengthen families and prepare children for lifelong achievement. According to district spokeswoman Mary Veres, PAT has increased children’s school readiness and success. It also improves parenting practices and provides early detection of developmental delays.
And other models exist as well.
“Having varied approaches is important,” notes Woodhouse. “We need to meet parents where they are. Preschool is not for every child or every family, but every child does need rich early childhood experiences, and it’s in the interest of school districts to be a part of that.”
In addition to improved student achievement, ancillary benefits are being experienced by districts engaged in early childhood programs. Preschools and parent programs draw young families to the district.
“The early years are a great time for districts to begin building relationships with the family, to become a great resource, to make them comfortable in the school community and to help them understand what will happen when their child starts kindergarten,” Woodhouse explains.
Pischke agrees and says Peoria has experienced that benefit. An elementary school that opened four preschool programs on its campus one year had 25 variances for kindergarten the following year. “We’re their first exposure to school,” she says. “So if we’re making a good impression, they’re going to want to stay.”