Study Paints Mixed Picture of Benefits of Pre-K Program in Ga.

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The first group of students to take part in Georgia's popular pre-kindergarten program got an academic boost that lasted at least through 1st grade, according to a continuing evaluation of the program.

But a few of the gains they made may be fading.

More than 57,000 children throughout the state attend preschool for free this school year through the program, which is open to any family. A pet project of Gov. Zell Miller, the program is one of three education programs that are paid for with state lottery earnings.

Researchers from Georgia State University presented findings from their evaluation of the first three years of the program April 4 during a meeting here of the Society for Research on Child Development.

They are tracking 500 children from poor families through the end of this year, when the youngsters will finish 2nd grade. Roughly half of those children took part in the program in 1993, when it was open only to low-income families. The other half attended no preschools.

In kindergarten, the researchers found, the preschool graduates outshone the control group on a standard scale used to measure academic and social development.

Moreover, the students' kindergarten teachers rated them higher than the other children in academic, physical, social, communication, and self-help skills. The former preschool students also had 26 percent fewer absences and were promoted to 1st grade at higher rates than the comparison children.

Parental Support

When they reached 1st grade, the researchers found, the program children still outscored the comparison group on the academic-development scale the researchers used. But socially they performed no differently--although both groups scored above average.

"There had been a thrust in the program in terms of social development, so we were surprised that the pre-K children were not higher," said Lorene C. Quay, a professor of early-childhood development and the evaluation's lead investigator.

The program children were still missing fewer days of school in 1st grade. But, unlike in kindergarten, their teachers saw no differences between the groups, rating them about equal academically and socially.

Both groups were also promoted to 2nd grade at similar rates. But Ms. Quay said that finding may reflect the fact that some children had already been held back in kindergarten.

A smaller subgroup of the children also took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 1st grade. Among this group, program children scored about the same as their study counterparts.

But, while the numbers paint a mixed picture of the program's lasting success, parents of children in it were overwhelmingly pleased.

When asked, "When your child went to preschool, did it do any good that you can still see?," 96 percent of the parents said yes.

"I would have to say that perhaps the families are more sensitive to changes in their children than our measures were," Ms. Quay said.

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