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Is Nationwide Pre-K on the Way?


Share Georgia is on the right track with its all-day, free prekindergarten program, say parents and educators. Future school reform should include universal prekindergarten nationwide, according to Head Start founder Edward Zigler and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Richard W. Riley.

Research has found that quality, early childhood programs make a difference in helping get children ready for school. Although 42 states offer some type of early childhood education, only Georgia offers a free, full-day prekindergarten program for all children.

In 1995, Georgia expanded its free, prekindergarten program to include all the state's four-year-olds -- regardless of family income. At that time, enrollment nearly doubled, jumping to 15,500, said Celeste Osborn, director of the state's Office of School Readiness.

Today, Georgia's prekindergarten program serves about 63,000 children, about 70 percent of the state's four-year olds, Osborn said. And parents are overwhelmingly happy with it -- nine out of ten are satisfied. Many say they even spend more time with their children because of the program.

"What Georgia learned, it became very apparent, was that for an early childhood program to have support and staying power, it has to be for all children," said Edward Zigler, the Yale University psychology professor credited with conceiving Head Start and the nation's family leave policies.

"It is a sad fact that people don't want to pay for poor families, their preschool [education], or their welfare," Zigler told Education World. The result is that Head Start has served only about 40 percent of eligible children who live right above the poverty line, he added.

Funding the prekindergarten program has not been a problem for Georgia, thanks to the state's successful lottery, which pays the $3,653 per-child cost. "Probably, [based on] per capita income, we're putting in the largest amount of money toward prekindergarten education in the nation," said Osborn.

A parent can also count on a public school bus to provide transportation to a public prekindergarten. In some school districts, the public school bus drivers deliver preschoolers to private centers, if the center is located along the bus route, Osborn told Education World. "How's that for public education working?" she asked.

Not only does Georgia serve the highest proportion of preschool children in the nation, it goes a step further for those children considered at risk. At-risk children are provided additional free services, including before- and after-school care and meals.

Participation is voluntary for families, public schools, and private child development centers.

GOAL TO PROVIDE HIGH-QUALITY PRESCHOOLS

Not all early childhood programs are equal, so participating schools must meet Georgia's state standards. The goal of Georgia's program is to offer a high-quality preschool program that emphasizes helping children achieve school readiness goals. Using developmentally appropriate practices, the program focuses on growth in language and literacy, math concepts, science, arts, physical development, and personal and social competence.

The program began in 1993, initially serving 750 at-risk children. The state's goal was to provide the children with an opportunity to better develop school readiness skills in an environment that would also allow them to have fun.

To better evaluate whether the program is meeting its goals, the state began a 12-year longitudinal study during the 1997-98 school year. So far, parents give the program high marks, and all measures of service were found to be of high quality.

CHILD-CENTERED BETTER THAN ACADEMIC

One of the study's findings is that preschool children reap the greatest benefit by going from a child-centered prekindergarten program into a child-centered kindergarten environment. The study found it is important for prekindergarten teachers to adopt a child-centered instructional approach rather than an academically directed approach or a combination of academic and child-centered practices.

Although the vast majority of parents were satisfied with their children's prekindergarten experience, their beliefs were inconsistent with research that indicates a child-centered approach is more beneficial for most children. The majority of parents believed the main purpose of kindergarten should be academic in nature.

Georgia State University also conducted an assessment of the state's prekindergarten program. That evaluation found that children who attended prekindergarten had higher academic and social ratings by their kindergarten teachers and better kindergarten attendance than did children who did not attend preschool programs.

BENEFITS OF EARLY CHILDHOOD ESTABLISHED

The idea that early childhood intervention gives children a boost with school success is not a new one. Zigler, who spearheaded Head Start, believes universal preschool is absolutely necessary. "About 35 percent of children show up at school not ready, and it is not just poor kids," he said. One of the weaknesses of Head Start is that it targeted only poor children, and you don't want all poor kids going to one school, he said. Another weakness of Head Start -- and a weakness of the Georgia program -- is that neither includes three-year-olds, he added. "There is total consensus in the field of early childhood education that in order to have a robust program, it must be for two years [serving three- and four-year-olds]," Zigler said.

Universal preschool is the wave of the future, as is the extension of the school day to the same hours as working parents, Zigler said. He points out that there are two primary reasons for universal preschool -- first, there aren't enough children attending preschool and, second, many children in childcare settings are in environments that hinder school readiness.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley continues to call for a nationwide, quality prekindergarten for all children. During his annual state of education address in February, Riley said he supported a universally available prekindergarten. "These early years may provide us with the richest opportunity we may have to lose the achievement gap," he said. The Clinton administration is proposing $30 million in new funding to improve the quality of early childhood teachers.

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Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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06/08/2000