Earlier learning

April 25, 2005

THE NATION'S elementary school principals are seeking to lead the early childhood education bandwagon. In a recent report, they call for universal, voluntary prekindergarten programs and challenge themselves to work with families, local organizations and policy-makers to create "early childhood learning communities." Their support stems partly from the growing recognition of principals as not only building managers but also instructional leaders. And it stems partly from self-interest -- if children are better prepared when they reach kindergarten, they are more likely to do better throughout school.

What happens in prekindergarten that's so important? Lots of things. For 3- and 4-year-olds, language skills can be learned through singing, spatial awareness and motor skills can be learned through building blocks and drawing, and social skills can be learned from having to interact and share with children of different backgrounds. Long-term studies of high-quality preschool programs show that participants are less likely to drop out of school or engage in criminal activity later on. They also need less special or remedial education, realizing significant savings for school districts.

Educators in Maryland already realize the need to expand prekindergarten education to ensure early school success for more children. By the 2007-2008 school year, all eligible 4-year-olds from economically disadvantaged families should be enrolled in preschool programs, as required by the Thornton law. The Maryland State Department of Education announced last week that 58 percent of kindergartners were "fully prepared" when they started last fall, up from 55 percent in 2003. Baltimore experienced a stunning increase, from only 27 percent of kindergarten pupils considered fully prepared in 2003 to 40 percent in 2004.

Since the annual assessment involves subjective judgments by teachers who rate their pupils in areas such as language, numbers and social skills, it may be that the city's previous low grade or the recent high jump was an anomaly. But state and local experts agree that before the 2004 assessment, teachers received better training, and a coalition of local education, child care, health, social services and other leaders has started to get the word out to parents and communities about the importance of teaching kids early.

That's exactly the kind of effort that the principals' report envisions -- school officials working closely with parents, neighborhood groups and other local leaders to develop quality early education programs in schools and other appropriate settings throughout the community. Creating a continuous, meaningful learning experience for our youngest children will benefit schools, communities and the nation.

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