Feature

Preschool in the Public Schools

Space and funding for prekindergarten remain elusive, but some districts find partners in Head Start, social services by KIMBERLY REEVES

The doors to the Molly Stark School in Bennington, Vt., swing open at first light and don't close until early evening, and that's the way Principal Sue Maguire likes it.

Five years ago, Molly Stark was an elementary school. Today it's a family center that focuses on social services, along with the academics from preschool through 6th grade. From sun-up to early evening, the school is bustling with activities for its 440 students and their parents. Through state and federal grants, as well as Medicare reimbursements, Molly Stark has expanded its role in the small southwestern Vermont community.

Molly Stark has its own preschool program and a licensed day-care center. On-site family outreach workers teach parents the best ways to read to their children through literacy breakfasts, educational games and a lending library. A pediatrician, psychologist and dentist visit to provide services to the children. The local community college teaches on-site adult basic education courses. The goal for the blended staff is to reach entire families.

The strategy of Molly Stark--to involve families early and often in education--is nothing more than "the right thing to do for kids," says Maguire, who has spent all 23 years of her education career at the Vermont elementary school. Instead of the piecemeal programs of the past, the Molly Stark model integrates education with both social and health services on one site, starting services at an early age.

"If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right," Maguire says. "The pendulum in education swings back and forth, and we keep doing the same things wrong. We typically do snippets of programs until the money runs out. Then we say we can't do it anymore. Instead, we need to take a comprehensive approach, a two-generation strategy, to education."

A Comprehensive School
For Maguire and her team at Molly Stark, the notion of starting education in families both early and comprehensively was a logical extension of the school staff's study of brain-based learning. Even though Vermont has offered county-based preschool centers for several years, the ambitious family center concept at Molly Stark was a hard sell to some local social service agencies that Maguire invited to Molly Stark less than five years ago.

"When we began to develop our vision, I invited every director of every agency in town to our school," Maguire says. "I told them, 'Here's our vision and here's where we're going.'" The comfort level among the agencies varied, Maguire says. Some bought into the concept immediately. Others took more time. Often the question arose, "Is this the school’s job?" Maguire says. The school’s No. 1 job is always education, Maguire agrees, but sometimes underlying non-academic problems make it difficult for a child to focus on learning a math or reading skill.

They decided to go ahead with the people they had.

What a difference five years can make. Today, those same social service agencies are clamoring to be a part of Molly Stark's comprehensive family center concept. Intervening outside pressures such as welfare reform and the redirection of federal Head Start funding to collaborative efforts means the idealized year-round "comprehensive school" educators touted two decades ago is closer to reality than ever, all with the federal government's blessing.

"The trend is toward these types of collaborative arrangements between public schools and Head Start, social services and child care," says New York-based education consultant Anne Mitchell, who tracks prekindergarten. "I think the truth of the matter is that those who fund schools realized that to create an early childhood program and not use Head Start and other good child-care centers would be wasteful. The motivation that legislators have is efficiency."

Growing Pains
The concept of serving children between the years of three and five has a long history of acceptance among educators. Few dispute the benefits of preparing young children, especially those in poverty, to be ready for the classroom. Tallies indicate 42 states invest funds in state prekindergarten initiatives.

That broad acceptance, however, has been coupled with limited funding. According to "Seeds of Success," a report on state prekindergarten initiatives released by the Children's Defense Fund last fall, state spending on prekindergarten has expanded from $700 million during the 1991-92 school year to $1.7 billion during the 1998-99 school year. The number of children served has jumped accordingly, from 290,000 to 725,000.

That still leaves the vast number of young children out of the loop for prekindergarten. Most states limit their funding to only the neediest children. Three-quarters of all state spending on prekindergarten is concentrated in 10 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Texas. Funding is so low in a state like Tennessee that only 2 percent of eligible children are actually being served by prekindergarten programs.

Superintendents like Bobby New in Fayetteville, Ark., have pushed additional funding for prekindergarten as a top priority during recent legislative sessions. Prekindergarten currently is limited to 60 4-year-old students in two of Fayetteville's poorer elementary schools. That's probably only a quarter of the children in poverty and only 10 percent of the estimated 4-year-old children in the Fayetteville schools. New is pragmatic about the funding limitations, even as he pushes state officials to add dollars for early childhood education.

"Arkansas is a relatively poor state with limited resources. Right now, we're concentrating on the level of education we offer in our K-12 program," says the superintendent of the 8,000-student school district. "I don't think pre-k has been ignored because we spend too much on sports or we have uncaring politicians or our educators don't care. We're just strapped for money."

Paul Miller, who lobbies the California legislature on child development issues, is more skeptical. A master plan for early childhood education stalled in that state’s legislature this session. Despite clear research that would indicate early education is beneficial for young children, a large segment of society is still firmly opposed to the concept, Miller says. That includes those who use the services of early childhood providers.

"There's a need for a shift in attitude, even among the real customers of pre-k and child care," says Miller, president of the non-profit Tri-Cities Children's Center in Northern California. "There's still a significant number of people who believe they should be staying at home with young children. When they do work, they feel guilty. There has to be a societal shift in attitude for people to feel comfortable with both career and young children, to allow others to care for their children."

For many others, terms such as "preschool" and "prekindergarten" connote nothing more than glorified babysitting, Miller says. To erase that stigma, he says the nomenclature for early childhood education should emphasize education. Standards also must be clarified.

Still, New expects the acceptance of prekindergarten to build just as support to move kindergarten from half-day to full day eventually gains momentum. The question is simply one of where money in education is best spent, he says, and prekindergarten is an effective front-end investment that reaps long-term rewards among students.

Slow Growth
Only two states--Georgia and New York--have made any inroads toward offering an optional universal prekindergarten to children. Of even greater concern to the Children's Defense Fund are states that require only minimal curricula and no child-to-teacher ratios, regardless of whether the program is run by a public school or based in the community.

"The real issue is what your standards are," says Karen Schulman, a co-author of the study and director of child care and development at the Children's Defense Fund. "If you provide the resources to the community groups, can they meet the standards? We have a lot of people out there who only operate within the school code, who don't provide the experiences that 3- and 4-year-olds need. Along with your resources, you must have a strong set of standards and a good set of staff requirements."

The Buffalo, N.Y., school system offers one of the oldest and largest prekindergarten programs in its state, a program that carries its own waiting list. The district's first efforts at early intervention grew out of court-ordered desegregation, says Associate Superintendent for Instruction Marion Canedo, but that initial foray into specialized instruction has expanded to encompass a self-contained instructional program for the primary grades.

"After two decades of early childhood education, what we know here is that the opportunity for high-quality early childhood education really supports children with the needed background and exposure to learn," Canedo says. "It helps them achieve better academically as they move through the grades, and it gives us the chance to become aware of their needs."

According to a long-term longitudinal study compiled by the Buffalo system, those who participated in an early childhood program dropped out of school at half the rate of their counterparts, roughly 2 percent for former preschoolers versus 5 percent for non-preschoolers. Scores show those who took advantage of early childhood services scored an average of 3 percent better than their counterparts on achievement tests, an advantage that lasted through graduation.

Overcoming Roadblocks
The fact that Wilma Kaplan, principal of a private preschool, has welcomed strong bonds with the Longwood Central School District on Long Island might be considered a bit ironic. It was only 20 years ago that a handful of parents of children with special needs marched out of the public school system to form the private New Interdisciplinary School in nearby Yaphank, N.Y. Yet Kaplan now welcomes a collaboration with the public schools, even if it means spreading the limited resources of her private not-for-profit nursery school even further.

"We provide services to preschoolers with special needs, as well as child care and nursery school, so we were very anxious for our children to have typically developing peers with them as soon as possible," Kaplan explains. "We're very pleased with the interaction. It's really added a dimension to our program that's been very positive."

About 25 children from Longwood's universal half-day preschool program are enrolled in two classes at the New Interdisciplinary School, and those children benefit from a wide variety of services provided through the preschool's own grants. Those benefits include a music therapist, a speech therapist, a resource room teacher and hands-on computer training--services the public schools could not afford to provide, district officials admit.

"In some cases, the funding allotted by the state was less than what the preschool could have charged us for their services," says Kathleen Brennan, director of elementary education in the 10,000-student Longwood Central Schools. "They gave us a bit financially because they believed, along with us, that there were benefits to students enrolled in programs like this."

Children in Longwood's two-year-old universal prekindergarten program--still fewer than 100 students so far--are housed on the campuses of three preschools within the district's boundaries. Before a contract was signed with any provider, Longwood district officials aligned curriculum and reviewed campus safety, Brennan says.

The only snag the district has hit with the arrangement was the late passage of the state budget this year, putting the preschools holding seats for the program in a last-minute crunch. Parent approval of the arrangement has been universal, giving the preschool programs ratings of "excellent" or "very good." Even though Longwood recently passed a $106 million bond issue--the largest in the state's history outside major cities--providing on-site prekindergarten space was never a serious consideration. Instead, voters wanted kindergarten space expanded to provide a full-day program.

"This partnership for preschool is something that has worked very well for us," Brennan says. "It has forged a positive relationship with these businesses, and if we can work together and better prepare our students, it's a win-win situation. I don't foresee us going to our own prekindergarten program anytime in the near future."

Uneasy Relationship
Not every child-care center is going to take kindly to public schools getting into the preschool business, points out Jo Campbell, assistant superintendent of the Council Bluffs, Iowa, Community Schools. Public school systems often prefer to give the impression they are the only ones who know what's best for children. That doesn't sit well with day-care centers.

"This is their niche and their livelihood," says Campbell, who faced strong opposition to a preschool program when she was an elementary school principal in Wyoming. "I was there for 22 years, and I never saw any school-financed preschool in my community. The day-care providers were dead set against me, and we eventually had to back off."

Campbell didn't resent the attitude. She learned to understand and accept it. Some day-care centers, she adds, provide excellent instruction to young children.

When a cross-section of superintendents was asked why prekindergarten is not more widespread in their school districts, the answer always came back to two main roadblocks: funding and space. The latter issue, in particular, has pushed partnerships between public schools and private providers to the forefront. Those ventures, say early childhood experts, can be beneficial for everyone involved.

"When you're talking about a partnership, the raw analogy is really one of a marriage," says Jim Squires, president of the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. "The relationship is built upon compatible values and compatible views. That's the foundation upon which you build the relationship. If you share a vision and a commitment to children, everything else can be worked out."

A Space Crunch
Now that universal prekindergarten is slowly being rolled out in New York, school districts like Syracuse are scrambling for space for prekindergarten in the community, whether it be at a subsidized housing project, in a closed parochial school or at a city parks and recreation facility. The city school district, which was among the first in the state to run a limited preschool program when it added a pre-k program in 1969, has forged partnerships with day-care centers and Head Start sites.

Chris Vogelsang, coordinator of early childhood programs in Syracuse, says such partnerships require an open mind and a lot of work. School districts must trust that their partners have the best interests of the children at heart, and they have to look for partners who can meet the needs of the district's children.

"When we looked at the contracting agencies, we looked for partners who could provide something to us. Most child-care centers we contracted with had the ability to tap into psychologists or social workers or provide social workers to families," Vogelsang says. "We could provide them with support and professional development."

Partnerships shift the entire paradigm of education away from pure academics, Vogelsang admits. The concern now becomes not only education, but also the ability to provide social services and full-day child care. In fact, Syracuse educators have coined a term for the goals of such partnerships: educare.

"We got sick of saying child care, and they got sick of saying education," Vogelsang says. "If you want a good partnership, you really have to walk in their shoes, learn what their concerns are. You have to be willing to accept the strengths of child care."

In the first year of the universal prekindergarten program in Syracuse, 800 families applied for the 367 slots created by state funding and supplemented by district resources. In some of the partnerships, the Syracuse district provided teachers. In other cases, it contracted with the child-care provider or the Head Start site to hire qualified New York-certified teachers. Teachers are provided staff development chosen by the school district, and facilitators visit various prekindergarten sites.

"We have to make sure that every child gets what he needs. We have to make sure parents get what they need," says Vogelsang. "That's going to be harder with welfare reform. Our parents are returning to work. They need to find a full-day quality program so that's become an important educational piece for our children."

Evolving Models
Early childhood education in Vermont's Windham Central Supervisory District was fairly simple throughout the 1980s and much of the ‘90s, Superintendent Holden Waterman says. An itinerant teacher would make home visits to work with young children and their families, serving as many as 50 children a year across the far-flung school district. To make sure families would connect with schools, parent events were hosted by the schools every couple of weeks.

"It was a very traditional early childhood intervention," Waterman says. "We'd work on socialization skills. We'd bring the parents together at the local elementary school. The kids would get familiar with the school personnel and the school knew the kids."

Then the state Supreme Court equalized school funding in Vermont, and the 54 elected representatives on the 11 school governing boards across 10 towns began to take a second look at budget cutting, says Waterman, who joined the district two years ago. Prekindergarten--rarely visible and barely tracked--was an easy target for cost cutting. First, one town board pulled out its funding of the $75,000-a-year prekindergarten program, followed by a second and a third.

Waterman decided to regroup, and the path he chose for early childhood education in Windham County was far different from his predecessors. He formed focus groups in various towns. He met with the day-care providers in the community. He spoke to the area's Head Start grant holder. He talked to people about the daily problems they were facing in the community. The results, as Waterman describes them, sound like an early family center.

Waterman’s next big challenge will be to convince the local buses to stop at his sites since--like so many prekindergarten programs--his district cannot provide transportation to parents who enroll their preschoolers.

"What we're conceptualizing is a program on a variety of sites with a variety of personnel, a program that can be all things to all people," Waterman says. "This would be a program that would allow parents to have a good quality education in the morning and good quality child care in the afternoon. We want people to be able to drop their children off in the morning at 7 a.m. and not worry about them until they pick them up at 7 p.m."

One-Stop Collaboration
Early childhood advocates support such an approach. Squires of the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education says the goal of any program should be to put all services for children at one site.

"One of the things we are trying to avoid is having children work any harder than their parents to get through the day," Squires says. "When we're asking children to move from one setting to another to a third or a fourth to get all the services they need, that's not fair. There's got to be a better way to do it, and for that reason alone we should have partnerships."

The fact that Maguire and Waterman came up with such similar concepts is no accident. The concept of serving all the needs of a child--from education to day care to social services--in a one-stop collaboration is clearly encouraged by federal funding. Federal grants are being funneled to collaborative efforts that overlap services to encourage school readiness.

Head Start has provided $400 million in grants over the last three years for those partnerships that are committed to full-day year-round programs for children, says Tom Schultz, a special assistant at the national Head Start Bureau. Welfare reform has only emphasized the need for quality affordable day care at convenient locations.

"I think it's very clear that the landscape of early childhood is changing, and for Head Start that means we're looking for more opportunities to partner with public schools, especially because of the growth of pre-k programs," Schultz says. "We're turning to partnerships as much as possible, either in funds or in facilities, to make sure children get everything necessary--health services, nutrition, learning experiences--to be ready for school."

Head Start and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Care Bureau have joined forces to provide full-day full-year services to young children through the newly funded Denver- and Boston-based organization known as QUILT, an acronym for Quality In Linking Together. The goal of the group, which met with state leaders in October, is to help forge partnerships on local, regional and state levels among early childhood providers. (The group's Web site can be found at www.quilt.org.)

"Any program that is not full-day and full-year is likely to see enrollment numbers drop as more and more families are pushed out into the work force," says co-director Karen Juall. "There just aren't enough dollars for pre-k. They're going to have to collaborate, to go out into the community and figure out ways to blend funds and provide the high quality comprehensive services children need."

Approximately 20 percent of Head Start providers across the nation are public school districts. The Sioux Falls, S.D., school district is not only the largest district in its state, but also the first to emphasize early childhood education. Along with full-day kindergarten, the district is the designated provider of Head Start services in its community, serving almost 400 young children at four community child-care centers. Superintendent Jack Keegan says such a commitment benefits the school system.

"We work with child-care centers to raise the level of what goes on there," Keegan says. "We raise the level of what goes on to what's developmentally appropriate. As the school district, we're just more driven to get the children ready to learn."

Even in tighter budget times, the Sioux Falls community has supported early education, such as the full-day kindergarten that is rare in most South Dakota districts because of limited funding. For its part, the Sioux Falls district agreed to close four schools in its most recent bond issue to free up another $1.2 million in operating funds each year to support initiatives such as a full-day kindergarten program for the 19,400-student district.

"We know that there's quite a bit of research on brain development regarding the impact of early learning, and our board was aware of that," Keegan says. "As we freed up those instructional dollars, they wanted us to look for programs that were making a significant impact on the lives of kids in regular education, as well as helping those kids who are struggling."

Nationwide Standards
Those who study early childhood education say it will take more than new partnerships and family centers to resolve the issues of prekindergarten. A new study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children suggests that a national council may be the only way to set uniform standards for high quality in prekindergarten programs.

"We don't have one overarching system that serves young children in our country. What we have is a piecemeal system that we put together, whether it’s day care or Head Start or local school districts," says Diane Early, a co-author of the study. "What we need is a national response so that we can set high standards across the board."

Kimberly Reeves is a free-lance education writer in Houston. E-mail: kreeves@reporters.net