Public Schools Open Doors to Four-Year-Olds
The four-year-olds in Maritza Mena's class at P.S. 72 in New York City's East Harlem seem more like busy college students than Barney afficionados. On a given morning, students dart over to computer terminals, make a splash testing boats and waterwheels in a bucket, and proudly show a visitor pictures of their field trips to Chinatown and a local police station.Skip to next paragraph
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To the children, it's all in a half-day's work. But unlike millions of three- and four-year-olds who attend private preschool classes, these children are already enrolled in public school.
With the early years of education under increased scrutiny, more states are focusing on publicly funded prekindergarten. Last year, 21 states increased investments in either pre-K or the federal program Head Start. New York has pledged to make pre-K for 4-year-olds universally available by 2003. New Jersey has allotted $288 million a year to create a new early-childhood education program. In California, a state task force just recommended making pre-K classes available to all 3- and 4-year olds.
Much of the momentum is coming from fresh evidence that "school readiness" - familiarity with colors, counting, being read to, and group dynamics - can profoundly affect children's entry into formal schooling and their success in the elementary years. While some cities have long had limited pre-K programs, the issue has taken on new urgency. Early education is one step, experts say, toward reducing the gap between the large number of children who have some kind of prekindergarten and the majority of children from lower-income families who do not.
Prekindergarten can combat "chronic underachievement in our schools," says Donna Meeks, staff associate for education at the Citizen's Committee for Children of New York, a private advocacy group.
Despite these early efforts, however, most states are still grappling with how much to expand pre-K. While a growing chorus of advocates - from the White House on down - are trumpeting the advantages of starting school ever younger, others remain skeptical, arguing that children barely out of diapers are getting too much structure too soon (see story, right).
States are also unclear on the exact cost of offering pre-K to most children, or even just those considered most needy. "We don't have an answer," says Sharon Kagan of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy in New Haven, Conn. "We need to try to accurately assess that."
Funding is a big sticking point. Take New York City. Currently about 14,000 four-year-olds are enrolled in a limited number of experimental programs like the one at P.S. 72. But the state will add $67 million to expand its very limited pre-K offerings in the coming school year. These numbers are expected to ratchet upward until 2003, when prekindergarten is scheduled to become available to anyone who wants it.
Not enough money to go around
Already funding is a problem. In New York, Ms. Meeks says, the $32 million allotted to New York City by the state comes out to about $2,300 per child for the 12,000 children expected to enroll. But that figure remains shy even of the $3,600 per child required to offer a half day of instruction, much less of the $6,000 required for a full day.