Early Childhood

An Earlier Start

By Linda Jacobson — May 09, 2006 9 min read
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The wide-open field between the double-wide trailer that houses Baldwin Academy’s pre-K class and the rest of the school here is about the only thing separating prekindergartners from their K-5 peers in the main building.

On the whiteboard inside the portable classroom is a list of words beginning with the letter O. It is the same kind of letter-of-the-week lesson that Baldwin’s kindergarten teachers use. The two young boys wearing headphones and sitting in front of computer screens are working on the same early-reading program used in kindergarten.

Pupils in the morning session at Baldwin Academy's pre-K program in La Puente, Calif., use the school's library for reading and interacting with other grades in the K-5 public school.

Children’s predictions about what happens when the colors black and white are mixed are posted on the wall, next to the California early-learning guideline addressed by that activity—just as state academic standards are posted alongside student work throughout the school.

Drawing such instructional connections is a primary goal behind a movement to make pre-K classrooms part of the regular life of elementary school. Proponents of such efforts argue that children in prekindergarten through 3rd grade make up a specific developmental period.

Such advocacy appears to be gaining momentum. Many states are developing early-childhood learning standards linked to those of other grades. At the local level, a growing number of districts and schools treat pre-K as another grade.

“Sometimes I hear someone say ‘pre-K-through-12 district’ and I say, ‘Yes!’ ” said Gabriela Chavarria, clenching her fist for emphasis. As the director of child-development programs for the 25,000-student Hacienda La Puente school district, east of Los Angeles, one of her primary jobs, she said last month, is to maintain awareness about blending early-childhood and elementary education.

Pre-K classrooms have existed in elementary schools for years. But the concept behind the pre-K-3 movement is that prekindergarten programs should not be housed on school campuses simply because some empty classrooms are available. And pre-K teachers should not be excluded from faculty meetings or professional-development opportunities because they might not have completed a traditional teacher education program.

At Baldwin, for example, Ms. Chavarria looks for opportunities to bring kindergarten teachers and preschool teachers together. Each school in the district that has on-site prekindergarten also has a “transition plan” that helps to create common classroom and administrative practices.

In addition, the thinking goes, prekindergarten should be treated as just another grade, with a curriculum that is connected to what the rest of the students are learning, and the staff should communicate regularly about prekindergartners’ progress.

“One way or another, younger and younger kids are going to be in schools,” said Sharon Ritchie, a co-director of FirstSchool, a three-year effort at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in Chapel Hill, N.C., to design a demonstration school for children ages 3 to 8. If pre-K classes are tacked on to K-5 schools “in a piecemeal way,” it will be very hard to connect them later, she added.

Early-Childhood Research

Recent studies have provided new insight into the benefits, challenges, and shortcomings of prekindergarten.

Ladders of Learning: Fighting Fade-Out by Advancing PK-3 Alignment www.newamerica.net

Principals Lead the Way for PK-3: Early Investment, Strong Alignment, Better Results www.naesp.org

Another argument in favor of bridging the worlds of early-childhood and elementary education focuses on the “fade-out” effect.

Studies have shown that even when children attend good preschools, the benefits often dissipate a couple of years into elementary school. And in March, researchers from American University, in Washington, and the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, released research showing that the academic advantages of full-day kindergarten—a policy widely supported by policymakers—also fade away by the 3rd grade.

But in a paper published in January for the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, Kristie Kauerz, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, says that the gains from prekindergarten and full-day kindergarten can’t be sustained if they are not connected to the next primary grades.

“Indeed, [pre-K] and [full-day kindergarten] are effective in closing achievement gaps before children enter 1st grade,” writes Ms. Kauerz, a former early-childhood education expert at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “One or two strong rungs, however, do not guarantee a successful climb up the ladder of learning; there must be an ongoing succession of sturdy rungs.”

That ladder can be strengthened through what experts call alignment, or making sure that what children learn and experience in preschool—including curriculum, assessments, and teaching methods, prepares them for the next grade level, she said.

As Ms. Ritchie notes, states are rapidly expanding public pre-K programs. The latest preschool yearbook from the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Brunswick, N.J., shows that public pre-K enrollment increased from about 700,000 children in the 2001-02 school year to more than 800,000 in 2004-05.

Still, Ms. Ritchie said, there continues to be a “traditional split between early-childhood and K-12.”

Brianna Ordaz carries bread to the table during a prekindergarten cooking activity that seeks to improve language, math, and science skills.

For example, many states still use a mix of school- and community-based providers to offer pre-K classes. As a result, some children attend classes at schools, while others can go to child-care or Head Start centers.

Public prekindergarten is also still paid for by states through a variety of funding sources, such as lottery proceeds or annual general-fund appropriations. As a result, financial support for such programs is often more dependent on economic trends than formula-driven appropriations. A handful of states, including Oklahoma and Wisconsin, finance pre-K programs through their regular school funding formulas.

And even if pre-K classes are located in schools, they usually are the first to lose their space if enrollments in the higher grades grow or if class-size-reduction mandates require extra classrooms.

But if the public education system were to take on prekindergarten as an additional grade level, as some advocates envision, the “financial ramifications” would be significant, said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals.

“There’s a pretty hefty price tag,” he said. Principals of elementary schools already have overwhelmingly demanding jobs, he noted. Still, his organization has backed the drive to connect preschool with the elementary grades, and has just released a report profiling schools with strong pre-K-3 programs.

Different funding sources and separate locations don’t have to stand in the way of better connections between early-childhood programs and K-5 schools, said Ruby Takanishi, the president of the New York City-based Foundation for Child Development, which is advancing the pre-K-3 idea.

What’s important, she said, is for school districts to have a staff member in charge of pre-K-3, just as they might have a director of middle schools or high schools. She said the current emphasis on pre-K-3, in fact, reminds her of the middle school movement, when educators began to look at early adolescence as a distinct developmental time.

“We need to fundamentally rethink when public education begins and ends in this country. Maybe you take the last year of high school and put it in the front,” Ms. Takanishi said, raising a provocative idea that others have also suggested.

For now, the pre-K-3 or pre-K-5 configuration is developing school by school and district by district.

In Seattle, the New School Foundation, a public-private partnership with the city’s 44,000-student district, supports two elementary schools that have pre-K.

Kindergartner Christine Nguyen, center, reads for pre-K pupils Daphne Abad, left, and Belen Robeles during a visit to the Baldwin Academy library.

T.T. Minor Elementary School, which was an underperforming Seattle school, is now in its eighth year of having fully integrated prekindergarten. And while pre-K is not the only reason student test scores have increased, it has certainly been a contributing factor, said Laura Kohn, the foundation’s executive director.

The school’s reading, writing, and mathematics scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning show an upward climb since 2004—the year the first former preschoolers at T.T. Minor reached 4th grade.

Elsewhere, entire districts are buying into the pre-K-3 concept. Three years ago, the 11,000-student Independence, Mo., district began opening “child and family learning centers,” which include preschool classes operated with federal Head Start aid and other money. Now the centers are in all 13 of the district’s elementary schools.

When the preschoolers go to physical education, music, or art, they have the same teachers as the older students. And when they advance to kindergarten, “they’re really just going across the hall,” said Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson.

The district also requires teachers in the preschool to be fully licensed, and they are paid on the same salary schedule as K-5 teachers. Those policies overcome possibly the biggest obstacle to merging prekindergarten with K-12: the variation in how preschool teachers are prepared and paid. In many cases, preschool teachers still earn roughly half of what a kindergarten teacher makes. And when they get the opportunity, they usually move up.

At Baldwin Academy, for example, Head Start teacher Yolanda Zamarripa is working on her bachelor’s degree in order to become a primary-grades teacher. “I like early childhood, but unfortunately, if I want to pay back my loan ... ,” she said, not finishing her thought.

Not everyone is on the pre-K-3 bandwagon, though. Some experts in early-childhood education don’t want to see classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds turned into kindergarten in the same way that most kindergartners are now expected to master skills that used to be introduced in 1st grade. Others say the movement potentially limits parents’ choices by hurting independent centers.

“The notion of ‘alignment’ seems so tidy—a way to batten down the hatches and get serious inside classrooms,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Maybe it’s helpful for offering structure for errant teenagers, but it runs against the grain of how young, active, and inquisitive children actually learn.”

Ms. Takanishi attributes such concerns to turf battles between the early-childhood and K-12 fields. The attitude that “we have to protect these children from those god-awful public schools” isn’t productive, she said.

Robert Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, said his classroom-based research shows that the academic “push down” that some people worry about is not a big threat.

The bigger problem, he said, is that early-childhood and elementary educators continue to lack common ground on how to teach young children. If anything, he said, the pre-K-3 concept has the potential to create a “unified vision and strategy.”

Sometimes, Ms. Chavarria said, it’s the little things—such as having a mailbox in the office or being put on the schedule to visit the library—that make pre-K teachers and pupils feel as if they’re not just add-ons. But sometimes those gains can be hard-won, even with a supportive principal. “A lot falls on the preschool teacher at the site,” she said. “We are the ones always reaching out.”

Read more feature stories from our In Perspective section.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as An Earlier Start


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