ATLANTA — Goergia is in the midst of a massive education experiment to help reduce its high- school dropout rate, teen pregnancy, and crime. Its target audience: four year olds.
This year, the state will offer free preschool to more than half its 100,000 four year olds. The idea is that preparing children for education early will help reduce social problems, enhance economic development, and boost the state's own academic standing, which lags behind the rest of the nation.
Begun in 1993 targeting "at-risk" children, the program is being dramatically expanded. A study due out next month shows that participating children are testing higher academically than those who skipped preschool. The program is attracting national attention and, if it continues to show good results, could become a model for other states.
"The movement toward preschool education is terribly important," says George Autry, president of MDC Inc., a research firm in Chapel Hill, N.C. "We in the South have been economic prisoners of a weak education ethic."
Although many states across the country are focusing more on early childhood education, the South has taken the lead. Half of the 600,000 children enrolled in public preschool programs are in 15 Southern states, according to the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.
In addition, in the South since 1990, the number of children in Head Start (the federally funded program for at-risk preschoolers) has increased by 65 percent; enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has more than doubled over the same period.
Behind the move is a realization that the region - whose student achievement has always fallen behind national standards - must make improving education a priority if it hopes to compete in the global workplace.
Across the South, states such as Texas and South Carolina are putting increased emphasis on early childhood education by starting or expanding their own state-funded programs. Most of these programs, however, target only at-risk children who live in poverty or in single-family homes.
But Georgia has gone out on an educational limb and is the only state offering free preschool to four year olds from all backgrounds. Democratic Gov. Zell Miller started the program three years ago, serving 9,000 at-risk four year olds. This year it expanded its reach to 60,000 children and is expected to cost $210 million, paid for by the lottery.
"If we can get our children equipped and ready to learn when they reach the kindergarten door, they're going to do better in school," says Mike Vollmer, director of the Georgia Office of School Readiness. "We hope it means less dropouts and more interest in academics."
While experts say it will take about a decade to determine whether Georgia's preschool program will have an effect, in the short term, advocates say it's working. They tout a report to be released in early September that followed the progress of children in the program two years ago.
According to the report, many of the children are testing at higher academic norms than children who didn't attend preschool and at a higher level than the national average.
"We feel very good about those results," Vollmer says. "A lot of states are looking at us to see if we fall on our face or see if we actually pull this off."
The pre-kindergarten program takes place in hundreds of schools and day-care facilities throughout the state. Vollmer's office contracts with public and private preschools to provide 6-1/2 hours a day of instructional activity. Parents can choose where to send their children.
The curriculum revolves around teaching math, science, and English concepts through counting building blocks or learning the alphabet.
"My main goal is to make sure kids feel comfortable going to kindergarten and that they have the majority of skills they'll need," says Dawn Cooper, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Sikes Schools, a day-care chain outside Atlanta, which participated in the program last year.
Though the ideas may seem simple, many children enter preschool not knowing basic skills, which can frustrate them when they reach kindergarten and make learning difficult in future grades, Ms. Cooper says.
"We had children who couldn't cut, couldn't write their names ... but by the end of last June they were comfortable using scissors and writing instruments," she says. "It's important that this basis is laid."
Children in the program come from all social and racial backgrounds. The state hopes to expand to 70,000 students in the near future.