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PREpared for success

Wider access to preschool will help more kids succeed in later grades, according to a growing chorus of advocates

(Page 3 of 3)

Still, several projects indicate that it's possible to improve their skills without a huge influx of resources.

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Susan Landry, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas, Houston, has been coaching pre-K teachers using a method she originally developed to help low-income parents improve interactions with their children. The adults are taught to say "roll me the ball," rather than "give it to me," for instance.

After one year in a center whose teachers received this coaching, low-income children who previously had scored in about the 15th or 20th percentile entered kindergarten at the 50th percentile, on par with kids from more advantaged backgrounds, Dr. Landry says.

"Even in classrooms where teachers don't have a high educational background, you can get this gain," she adds. "The teachers are really like sponges for information."

In Pittsburgh, Pa., the Early Childhood Initiative (ECI), a privately funded project to enhance opportunities for youngsters in low-income communities, saw similar results, according to evaluator Stephen Bagneto, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the Children's Hospital there.

Working with 1,350 kids in 25 communities, the ECI focused on key child-care issues: improving parental involvement, linking with school districts, and encouraging the best learning practices. In addition, all the ECI classrooms received about two hours a week of mentorship.

The results were striking. When the children entered kindergarten, they were far ahead of what the statistics would have predicted. In districts where an average of 28 percent of the children were being held back a grade, only 2 percent of the ECI children were held back. And compared with an overall special education rate of 25 percent, less than 1 percent of the ECI kids were placed in special education, Dr. Bagneto says.

In addition, 18 percent of the children, when they began, exhibited behavioral problems severe enough to merit a mental-health diagnosis. By the time all these children entered school – after three years in the ECI – their behavior and social skills were normal.

Like Landry, Bagneto emphasizes that the mentorship was one of the key factors. "Our speculation is, if we didn't have that, we wouldn't have these outcomes at all," he says, noting that only 20 percent of the child-care providers had bachelor's degrees.

Preschool facts

In France, Italy, and Belgium, 95 to 99 percent of children ages 3 to 5 attend preschool, most in public programs. Other countries with a high percentage of children in preschool are Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Greece, and the Netherlands.

In the United States ...

• 66 percent of 5-year-olds, 36 percent of 4-year-olds, and 14 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool.

• 43 states and the District of Columbia offer state-financed prekindergarten for some children, up from about 10 states in 1980. State spending for such programs totals $2 billion annually.

• In more than a quarter of the states, the average cost of center care for a 4-year-old in an urban area is at least twice as much as the cost of public-college tuition.

• Child-care workers watch over children for an average of $7.86 per hour. Preschool teachers fare only slightly better at $9.66 an hour – or about the same as hairdressers earn.

Sources: General Accounting Office, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Children's Defense Fund, US Department of Labor