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.

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.

Meeks says she is optimistic about either a funding match from the city or some other "creative use of existing funds," and she believes 12,000 half-day seats spaces will be available in the fall. But how New York will meet its commitment to offer universal prekindergarten by 2003 to 70,000 children in New York City alone is still unclear.

At the moment, in terms of funding, availability, and curriculum, what's being offered by the different states is still "very much a hodge podge," says Ms. Kagan. Georgia is the only state to offer universal, full-day prekindergarten. Its program, funded by the state lottery, serves about 61,000 four-year-olds, not counting another 13,000 enrolled in Head Start. Washington, D.C., has long offered prekindergarten to its children, but it's done it on a first-come-first-serve basis. Demand still far outweighs supply, with parents complaining they must stand in line overnight to be sure of a space.

Some states, like Ohio, are focusing on lower-income children, and use state funds to work with preexisting child-care and education programs like Head Start. A number of states, in fact, are interested in working with both public and private programs already in place.

In New York, the terms of the legislation governing prekindergarten require that at least 10 percent of funds be used in nonclassroom settings. Such provisions are intended both to ease overcrowding in already overburdened school buildings, and to stimulate community involvement in the new programs.

Mrs. Mena's pre-K work, for example, doesn't end at 11.30 a.m. In the afternoon, a second group of four-year-olds arrives. The children are there for the bilingual prekindergarten class. They run through the same activities as their morning counterparts, but this time Mena speaks to them in both English and Spanish, focusing a bit more on practicing English language skills.

At the same time, though, six of their mothers are in a classroom next door hearing from a nutritionist from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., how to plan a week's worth of balanced meals. The women listen earnestly and take notes, hoping to pick up a few new ideas before collecting their children and heading home to make dinner.

Programs vary widely

The additional training for parents is a special feature of P.S. 72's program, but not necessarily a standard pre-K offering. Programs vary widely from school to school. Most states have yet to implement standardized certification programs.

In general, pre-K focuses on what's called "structured play." As in Mena's class, instructors expose children to letters and their sounds, reading aloud to them, making sure they see and hear words, and exploring counting and other early math concepts.

Socialization skills - making friends, learning to be comfortable in a group of other children - are also considered an important part of the program.

Length of the school day is another important variable in the prekindergarten equation - and one with a profound impact on the funding question. Many of prekindergarten's proponents prefer a full day when possible. "A full-day is better than half for learning and socialization," says Meeks.

In practical terms, full-day programs go further toward meeting the needs of working parents. "I hear that from all the parents," says Mena. At P.S. 72, families must get on a waiting list even to get into the half-day program. "Most of them work. They all ask if it couldn't be full day."

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