Preschools are popping at the seams
American parents have finally gotten the message: Early education can make a big difference in a child's future.Skip to next paragraph
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Everywhere, private preschools are popping up and their enrollments are burgeoning. Local school districts are experimenting with state-funded preschool and full-day kindergarten. Researchers have not yet figured out how many of these early- education programs are effective, but the growth in enrollments has proved phenomenal and moved beyond the wealthiest states and fastest-growing suburbs.
"In many communities around the country, kindergarten is no longer aimed at the entry level," says Dominic Gullo, professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "And the only way Mom and Dad feel they can get their child prepared is through a pre-kindergarten program."
Consider one statistic: In 2000, nearly two-thirds of America's 3- and 4-year-olds attended some sort of preschool, according to recently released census figures, up from 5 percent in 1964. Attending preschool, in other words, is becoming a prerequisite for children in the United States.
"There's plenty of reports on the value of preparedness," says June Million, spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based in Alexandria, Va. "There's a huge difference between those who attend preschool and those who haven't."
The growth seems to be coming from everywhere. In fast-growing Nevada, for example, the number of children enrolled in preschool and kindergarten more than tripled during the 1990s. But more impressive was slow-growing Arkansas, where enrollments increased 2.5 times. Even Alaska, which lost 10 percent of its 3- to 5-year-olds during the decade, notched a near 50 percent enrollment increase.
To be sure, such growth rates are probably exaggerated because of problems with the 1990 census. The count almost certainly underrepresented the number of preschool enrollments because of the way the question was asked. Another challenge: The 1990 census lumped preschool and kindergarten numbers together. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the 1990s saw substantial growth in enrollments.
Most of that growth probably came from preschool, education experts say, because kindergarten had already become a de facto requirement in many communities by the beginning of the 1990s. The Education Commission of the States reports that nearly 98 percent of eligible children now attend kindergarten. And now that preschool participation is also becoming so broad-based, fears of have- and have-not education for young children may prove overblown, they add.
"We're actually preparing a system of more 'haves,' " says Professor Gullo. "There's such a wide variety of opportunities, it gives parents of all economic levels the opportunity" to send their children to preschool.
In fact, census numbers suggest that the most disadvantaged places made the most progress during the past decade. In 1990, for example, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina had among the smallest shares of its 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in preschool or kindergarten (fewer than two in five). But they notched the biggest gains of the '90s and now stand above the national average in the percentage of students enrolled.