Move city preschool to front of the line

March 29, 2000|By Howard Bluth

SEVERAL TIMES during his successful bid to become mayor of Baltimore city, Martin O'Malley mentioned the idea of citywide preschool. Not surprisingly, it has since taken a back seat to more urgent concerns like crime and court reform.

But the idea deserves serious attention because the condition of many city children is so fragile that citywide preschool programs may be the only way to stem chronic academic failure. In Baltimore, 70 percent of children are poor.

And poor, when it comes to children, doesn't simply mean "lacking the essentials." It means varying degrees of abuse, neglect, family disruption, neighborhoods riddled with drugs and violence, and in Baltimore, a virtual epidemic of lead poisoning. Put them all together and you have a deadly combination of social pathologies guaranteed to short-circuit learning capacities before children ever begin school.

Unprepared for learning

Many children in city schools are totally unprepared for learning. Some do not seem to understand why they're in school at all. And many communicate quite clearly (whether they mean to or not) that no one at home is able or willing to help them with homework or provide other support. This is not a slam at parents, many of whom experienced the same conditions when they were children. They may care a lot, but simply do not know how to help their own children succeed in school. This incapacity was reflected in a national survey of 35,000 kindergarten teachers who were asked how to best prepare children for school. The majority said "parent education."

Realistic options

But given the numbers (50 percent of city students functioning below grade level), parent education is not an option, at least not on the scale needed. Yet reaching these children before they start kindergarten is imperative.

To do so, preschool programs should be established in every elementary school in the city. About 6,000 4-year-olds in Baltimore are eligible for a full-day, public pre-K program. Such a program would cost about $3,500 per child per year. The idea might seem absurd given the money and talent such an investment would require, but it's an idea whose time has come.

Indeed, it's long overdue. Edward Zigler, the founder of Head Start, cited the need for such programs more than 10 years ago.

And there is precedent. As James Traub recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "The French have created an extraordinarily effective and widely admired form of preschool that reaches 86 percent of 3- to 6-year-olds. For the French, universal public education starts at 3." Mr. Traub asks why it shouldn't start at 3 in this country as well.

Too many of Baltimore's children are primed for academic failure by age 5. If the schools are really serious about systemic change -- the kind of change that reformers say they really want -- they need a new mandate to include citywide educational responsibility for 3- and 4-year-olds. The advantages would go well beyond the language enrichment so woefully lacking in children, which contributes so much to early learning deficits. Children would be exposed to the learning environment where their formal schooling will begin. Parents would be more accessible to the skills and adult literacy programs that might enable them to improve their children's educational environment at home. And incipient learning and behavior problems could be identified and addressed earlier, before they become resistant to remediation.

In schools' interest

Taking on this task would be in the schools' best interests. Doing so would enable them to influence the formative experiences of children for whose academic success they will be held responsible.

Education reformers can debate the merits of whole language and phonics, retention and social promotion, tracking, inclusion, vouchers, charter schools, privatization and who knows what else until the next millennium. But so long as large numbers of children continue to arrive at the schoolhouse door behind, we will keep playing catch-up. That is hardly a prescription for serious reform.

Mayor O'Malley had the right idea, even if it has fallen off his radar screen. It's time to make it happen.

Howard Bluth is a retired social worker who lives in Baltimore.

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