Ready to learn

Preschool: `Judy Centers' offer first step toward effort to prepare young children.

June 20, 2000

TOO MANY youngsters enter elementary school unprepared. They slip behind their classmates quickly, and stay there. By third grade, nearly six of every 10 Maryland public schoolchildren read below state standards and less than 7 percent excel at this key learning skill.

This underlines the need for the state to pay far more attention to preschool programs aimed at readying youngsters for those crucial first years of formal education.

The governor and the General Assembly took an important first step when they allocated $7 million to preschool childcare programs.

The goal is to improve teacher training of day-care professionals, encourage higher learning standards and identify areas in need of improvement in each county and Baltimore City.

If Maryland is looking for a model, it's North Carolina, where Gov. James B. Hunt started a preschool program in 1993 called Smart Start. Originally an $8 million program, Smart Start now has a $255 million budget and operates in all 100 North Carolina counties.

Children rich and poor benefit. Day-care centers receive grants to improve their education programs, offer health-care programs, give teachers more training and increase wages for day-care workers. Incentives encourage day-care operators to apply for state education accreditation.

The result has been an increase in the readiness of Smart Start kids when they enter kindergarten. Studies show they outperform other children in both cognitive and language skills.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening describes himself as the "education governor." He was not an enthusiastic supporter of the early education program pushed by legislators this spring. But he agreed to get it started with $7 million -- most of it for a series of full-service preschool "Judy Centers," named for the late wife of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.

Maryland should develop this program into a comprehensive, statewide effort to get kids ready for learning, just as Governor Hunt did in North Carolina.

That would be a legacy worthy of an "education governor."

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