As the boy tosses beanbags of various shapes and colors into a box on the table, Hilda Mercado checks off what he knows on a piece of paper. While he has no trouble with the exercise, today’s 30-minute session reveals that he still needs to work on number concepts.
“We make really sure they are ready to move on,” explains Ms. Mercado, an instructor in this classroom lab, where youngsters in need of extra, individualized instruction can come to sharpen the skills they need for school. “It takes about two to three months.”
The school, located just a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in the South Bay Union School District, uses federal Title I money for the program. But the children served at this brightly painted, 700-student campus don’t fit the profile of most low-income pupils served by the $8.6 billion federal program—they haven’t even started kindergarten yet.
Called VIP Village—the P stands for “preschoolers"—the school serves 3- and 4-year-olds. It is one of a growing number of schools throughout the country using Title I aid to address learning problems before children start elementary school.
In addition to providing intensive, personalized help during the school year, VIP Village, which operates on a year- round schedule, offers a similar program, called a “booster club,” for the school’s most at-risk youngsters during two special sessions in the fall and spring.
“In my mind, it does exactly what we want Title I money to do,” said Katy Roberson, the director of the program. “It fixes them and then gets them on their way.”
Preschool services have been an acceptable use of Title I dollars since the flagship federal program in precollegiate education was created more than 35 years ago. But it’s an option that many districts are still discovering.
“I sense more interest, as well as involvement, than in the past,” said Mary Jean LeTendre, who retired this month after serving as the director of the Title I program for the U.S. Department of Education for 15 years.
A recent report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, showed that during the 1999-2000 school year, just 17 percent of the school districts receiving Title I aid were using it to serve children before they reached kindergarten. And out of a Title I budget of roughly $8 billion, they were spending just over $400 million on such programs.
But as the emphasis on preparing children—especially disadvantaged children—for school increases, a greater number of districts may soon be looking to tap into those federal resources.
“It just makes common sense,” said Anne Mitchell, who runs Early Childhood Policy Research, a consulting group in Climax, N.Y. “If you start with kids earlier, you don’t have to worry about kids’ not reading in the 4th grade.”
Starting early is exactly what the 100,000-student Charlotte- Mecklenburg, N.C., district is doing with the lion’s share of its Title I money.
The district uses about 85 percent of its funding—a large slice that amounts to more than $8 million a year—for its Bright Beginnings prekindergarten, a six-hour-a-day program that emphasizes literacy development and parent involvement. In its fourth year, the program is serving 2,000 4-year- olds at 10 sites throughout the district, but plans are in place to expand it to 3,000 children.
“This was a real step on our superintendent’s part,” said Barbara Pellin, an assistant superintendent, referring to Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who was instrumental in establishing the program.
A recent report by the Child Care Action Campaign, an advocacy organization in New York City, underscores the role of schools chiefs like Mr. Smith. The study found that support from the superintendent is crucial if a district is going to build a program serving children younger than 5.
“In my opinion, there is no better investment for Title I money than to use it for preschool education,” said Richard D. Thome, the superintendent of the 10,700-student South Bay Union, Calif., district.
The attractive appearance of this child-friendly “village” outside San Diego illustrates the value that the district has placed on the program. Small painted footprints on the sidewalk guide children to their classrooms. Outside the parent center, there’s a shaded seating area surrounded by rosebushes. The campus even has a tricycle parking lot, with a blue “handicapped” space for an adaptive tricycle used by children with disabilities. “Most districts would have slapped down some buildings on the edge of a dirt playground,” Ms. Roberson said.
Even if districts know they can draw on Title I aid to serve preschool-age children, they may still have questions about how to do it.
For example, many administrators are not aware that the money can be used to serve infants and toddlers, not just preschoolers, said Ms. LeTendre, the longtime federal Title I chief.
What’s more, Title I early-childhood programs don’t have to operate within a Title I school building. They can be located within other community facilities, such as a child-care center. The funds can even be used for home-based services.
Districts can also slice an amount off the top of their funding for a systemwide program that draws students from throughout the district.
And while children who are eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start are automatically eligible to be served with Title I aid, it is not a requirement that youngsters be eligible for those programs in order to be served. The money can be used to serve children who are deemed at risk but who might be above the income level for those programs.
Indeed, the different experiences of districts that are using Title I funds illustrate how flexible that source of funding is for early-childhood-education programs.
Unlike the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, many districts don’t use Title I as their primary means of providing direct educational services to preschool-age children. As is the case with VIP Village, which gets most of its $2 million budget from the state of California, many districts use the federal money to supplement existing programs and make them more effective. Providing transportation, adding enrichment activities, and extending half-day programs— like Head Start—into full-day programs are a few of the ways districts are using the aid.
Ms. LeTendre added that some districts might be reluctant to use the Title I money for younger children because they are worried they will have to administer paper-and-pencil standardized tests for accountability purposes. But that is not the case, she said, because a variety of appropriate ways—other than standardized tests—are available for gathering data on children’s developmental progress.
Educators may have other concerns, too, such as the perception that the preschool programs might be taking money away from other, more important district initiatives. But many district administrators now using Title I money for preschoolers say they have not encountered such worries.
Cheryl G. Merritt, the principal at the Double Oaks Prekindergarten Center in Charlotte, N.C., said she’s never sensed any resentment from her colleagues at other schools about the program. But, she said, it took some proof—in the way of achievement data—to give those people “further confidence” that Bright Beginnings was preparing children from disadvantaged backgrounds for school.
Still, Ms. LeTendre said she realizes that many district leaders may be feeling so much pressure to raise the achievement levels of their elementary school pupils that they’re not yet willing to spend the money on children they are technically not responsible for.
“They think, ‘Why should I spend money on these preschoolers when I should be concentrating my efforts on the 4th grade?’” she said.
Better than Average
Last year’s report from the GAO on Title I preschools recommended further research on whether such programs are making a difference for children. But many districts are already tracking that for themselves.
An evaluation conducted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district shows that by the end of 1st grade in 2000, students who had participated in Bright Beginnings were outperforming those who were eligible for the program but did not participate. The evaluation was based on such indicators as the children’s ability to recognize letters, count numbers, socialize with other children and teachers, and participate in class.
And here in the South Bay Union schools, children who attended VIP Village, including those in the “booster” program, generally perform above the district average on achievement tests in the core subjects through the 6th grade, which is the highest grade level in the district.
But to Ms. Roberson, the program director, the best evidence of the preschool initiative’s success is probably that “kindergarten teachers are thrilled when they get our kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Districts Utilize Title I Flexibility To Prepare Little Ones for School