Monday, July 26, 2010

Early start is key to children's school success

The Editors

South Bend Tribune

It's not surprising that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has focused little attention on expanding early childhood education in his mission to increase achievement in Indiana schools.

The General Assembly, after all, is not likely to support adding expense for full-day kindergarten or pre-kindergarten in this troubled economy.

About 30 percent of Indiana kinder-gartners still attend kindergarten half days. And fewer than 20 percent of pre-kindergartners are enrolled in pre-school.

It all makes for a tremendous disparity among first-graders. Children who've had no formal lessons, who've not learned numbers or colors at home or been read to by parents enter the classroom alongside children with years of preschool under their belts, and parents who have exposed them to museums and travel.

Failing to level the playing field means some students will forever have been cheated out of a solid foundation on which to build a lifetime of successful education.

The solution is to mandate kindergarten for every child now, and to fully invest in full-day kindergarten and pre-school programs as soon as the state budget allows.

The governor, Bennett and early childhood experts from around the state should be teaming up to convince legislators that investing more heavily in early childhood education is smart.

Bennett has said that he doesn't think pre-school is a cure for what's ailing the state's K-12 schools — though he's a proponent.

He supports full-day kindergarten, too, as evidenced by the Department of Education's website. It lists eight benefits of full-day programs, including significantly greater progress in literacy, math, general learning and social skills.

Because of such benefits, South Bend Community Schools made the transition to a full-day program for all its kindergartners last year. The state pays schools the same tuition for kindergartners, regardless of whether they're taught for a full or half day. But school systems receive an additional $1,000 grant for each full-day kindergartner.

It isn't enough to encourage some schools to make the switch even though credible studies say full-day kindergarten significantly improves outcomes in the early grades.

And clearly, the status quo isn't good enough. IDOE earlier this year reported that 24 percent of Indiana third-graders were moving to fourth grade without demonstrating minimal proficiency in state English and language testing.

In response, the General Assembly charged Bennett with developing reading standards that every third-grader must meet before being promoted.

Increasing school accountability and raising expectations for student success are essential. We've argued in the past, however, that we believe providing more support for children as they begin their school career is preferable to rebuilding from failure.

Most children now enrolled in Indiana's federally funded pre-kindergarten classes have special physical or developmental challenges. Many more Hoosier pre-schoolers need and deserve this preparation.

Every child should be required to attend kindergarten.

And to us, universal full-day kindergarten plus pre-school adds up to a sure-fire formula for boosting student success.

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