Building brains 

Credit: Shannon Cornman

The idea was generated in December 2010 when the school district’s board of education approved funding for the pre-K teachers over a four-year period. Sixty have been hired so far, with an additional 60 slated to be added by the 2014-2015 school term.

A report from the district last year shows full-day early childhood education students scored higher on a series of literacy measures than half-day students. The assessments measured alphabet knowledge, concepts about print, phonological awareness and reading comprehension.

Another component of the pre-K plan is a partnership with the Inasmuch Foundation, which has agreed to finance the additional classrooms.

“They (Inasmuch Foundation) told us, ‘You guys hire the teachers and we will provide the ground for each classroom you have,’” said district Superintendent Karl Springer. “The plan is to give every 4-year-old in Oklahoma City the chance to attend all-day pre-K. This could be a generational way to fix the strategy so kids will read on grade level.”

A new law that goes into effect for the 2013-2014 school term mandates third-grade students must read at their grade level before moving on to the next grade.

“We want to front-load this thing and get kids [reading] on grade level by the time they get to kindergarten and first grade, and then emphasize reading all the way through [school],” Springer said. “After third grade, you
are reading to learn and no longer learning to read. That’s one of the
strongest reasons you want a good pre-K program. What we know is
children learn how to read by the third grade. After that, there’s a
statistical probability they won’t graduate from high school.”

Enjoying childhood
But Rhonda Joy Vansant, a Georgia education-reform activist and author of Education as It Could Be, argues that early childhood education is doing more harm than good.

“I’m not against pre-K, but when it becomes kindergarten, that’s a problem,” she said. “We need to give them as normal and happy childhoods as we can. Right now, we’re saying every 4-year-old
will have to do this and this. We’re trying to make everyone fit into
one box while ignoring individual human development and different needs
the children have. We’re not taking the whole child into consideration.”

But
Vansant appears to be in the minority. Most educators, especially in
Oklahoma, say early childhood education is paramount to future years of
academic success.

Pre-K students at Nichols Hills Elementary
Credit: Shannon Cornman

Oklahoma
established the Early Childhood 4-Year-Old Program in 1980 as part of a
pilot project with the goal of eventually serving all potential pre-K
students in the state. Ten years later, it received statewide funding,
although enrollment was limited to kids who were eligible for federal
Head Start. Districts were allowed to provide early childhood education
to other 4-year-olds through local funds or tuition.

In
1998, Oklahoma became the second state in the nation to offer free,
voluntary access to pre-K. Enrollment has steadily increased since then.
Currently, pre-K programs are offered in 98 percent of the state’s
public school districts.

Ramona
Paul, a leading pioneer in Oklahoma’s early childhood education, said
full-day pre-K allows youngsters the opportunity to gain socialization
skills and learn appropriate behavior on an individual and group basis.

The pre-K program as it exists today is “exactly what I envisioned,” said Paul, a former assistant state superintendent.

“Our
state requires that the teacher is certified in early childhood
education, which is the highest standard in the country,” Paul said.
“It’s a voluntary program, which makes it parentdriven. If the parents
didn’t like it, the students wouldn’t be there.”

About 75 percent of all Oklahoma 4-years-olds are enrolled in a public school pre-K program, she said.

While
short-term benefits from pre-K education are undeniable, some research
suggests those effects might fade over time. From 1992 to 2005, when
Oklahoma invested heavily in pre-K, the state ranked in the bottom 10 in
progress on fourth-grade reading, according to the National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Rhonda Joy Vansant

Critics
of that research, however, believe using 1992 NAEP data as a baseline
is misleading since pre-K wasn’t available statewide until 1998.

If
researchers instead used 2002 as a baseline for Oklahoma, white and
Hispanic children showed statistically significant progress in math
scores.

Still, the research illustrates that pre-K’s long-range benefits remain an issue for debate.

National model
Oklahoma’s
pre-K program has become an example for other states. Its admirers
include President Barack Obama, who has pointed to the Sooner State’s
early childhood education initiative as a model in his proposal to make
pre-K available to every child nationwide.

“In
states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like
Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read
and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form
more stable families of their own,” Obama said in his Feb. 13 State of
the Union speech. “So let’s do what works and make sure none of our
children start the race of life already behind.”

Obama
said that every dollar spent on pre-K can save $7 later on by boosting
graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy and reducing violent crime — a
figure often cited by another pre-K advocate, former Gov. Brad Henry.

In
2011, Oklahoma spent $3,500 in state funds and its Head Start
partnerships brought total average spending to $7,700 per pre-K student,
which is significantly more than most other states, according to the
National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER). Oklahoma’s pre-K
program also met nine out of 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks.

The advocates of early childhood education say it’s money well spent.

“You
can talk to a kindergarten teacher, and she can tell you, ‘This
[student] went to pre-K, and this one didn’t,’” said Pam Hibbs, director
of early childhood education at OKC Public Schools. “When a student
attends pre-K, it makes a significant difference in reading, alphabet
knowledge and comprehension.”

Ramona Paul

 

The Tulsa example
In
2003, researchers from Georgetown University conducted a study of
Tulsa’s pre-K program and discovered those students scored higher in
letter-word identification, spelling and applied problems than children
who were not exposed to the pre-K curriculum.

The
study’s results showed pre-K students were seven months ahead of their
counterparts in letter-word identification, six months ahead in spelling
and four months ahead in the applied problems category.

In
addition, the study concluded that all racial and ethnic groups benefit
from early childhood education. Hispanic and black students experienced
statistically significant gains for all three tests. American Indian
and white students showed significant gains in two of the three tests. —Tim Farley

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Tim Farley

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