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On Monday, the Austin American-Statesman featured our work in early childhood education and the unique challenges for our young children in Austin. The article highlighted our School Readiness Action Plan – an ambitious three-year plan to increase the percent of children who enter kindergarten ready for school to 70 percent by 2015.
As a follow up, today the Austin American-Statesman Editorial Board published their view on early childhood education, saying “…pre-K programs [are] a necessary asset for Texas children.” You can read the full article below:
Wednesday, July 9
Pre-kindergarten is vital for the success of any child’s education. Aside from getting students ready for kindergarten, pre-K reduces use of special education services, lowers grade retention and improves high school graduation rates. Studies also have shown that children who attend high-quality pre-K programs have higher earnings as adults and are less likely to be dependent on welfare.
Yet in Travis County, about half the area’s youngest students aren’t ready to enter kindergarten despite many efforts by local school districts, nonprofits and foundations, the American-Statesman’s Julie Chang reported Monday. An influx of new students every year, poverty and language barriers complicate the mission.
With more academics being presented in kindergarten, children need a pre-academic foundation before entering that grade. In pre-K, kids not only learn new words, numbers and problem-solving skills, but they also learn social skills such as how to pay attention in class and interact with other students.
Despite the difficulties, local and state education leaders must stay on course to improve pre-K programs and make them more accessible. Though the obstacles are constant, the benefits are worth the struggle.
Among just a few of the challenges facing Texas school districts, Chang pointed out, are tired, underpaid and underqualified teachers. Texas has one of the fastest-growing age 6 and younger populations in the country, but more than $200 million was cut from the state’s Pre-K Early Start Grant program in 2011.
To complicate things further, research shows that many American preschoolers do not have access to high-quality early learning opportunities, including pre-K. There are significant disparities in children’s early learning experiences, and these disparities result in large achievement gaps even before children enter school.
Fortunately, there’s help out there.
United Way for Greater Austin is one of dozens of local organizations focused on improving early childhood education.
The United Way, like several stakeholders across the state, has been trying to ease the blow of funding cuts by equipping low-income parents and communities with resources to educate children. As a result of United Way’s plan, the Travis County Commissioners Court promised to invest $500,000 in fiscal 2014, a portion of which will go toward parent education. This is promising.
Two years ago, United Way implemented its action plan Success by 6. Its goal was to get 75 percent of the children in Travis County ready for kindergarten by 2015.
“We think as we get more children earlier and with more intensive services and we begin to move them through the pipeline, we will begin to see it move up,” Sue Carpenter, the director of Success by 6, told the Statesman. “In a way, we see it as a success to not have seen a dip because of all these external factors.”
We see it as success as well.
But not everyone is convinced that pre-K programs are a wise investment.
Many conservative critics say that any test score gains from Head Start, a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children up to age 5, aren’t visible by the time the children reach third grade. They cite the 2002-2006 Head Start Impact Study, which showed virtually no difference between kids who had enrolled in a Head Start program and those who had not.
But the same study also showed that while short-term benefits on tests fade, long-term benefits stick. In the long run, children who attended Head Start programs were less likely to be unemployed or out of school and were less likely to be arrested.
The benefits, both short and long term, make pre-K programs a necessary asset for Texas children.
Politicians in Texas agree. Early education reforms are a topic in the gubernatorial campaigns of Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott, with both candidates promising hundreds of millions to either expand or improve the quality of pre-kindergarten. That’s good.
Money will help the development of better curriculums and hire and retain great teachers, but parent involvement is just as crucial in establishing a solid academic foundation for children.
At the United Way-funded Mainspring Schools in South Austin, which mostly serves low-income families, parents are taught financial literacy and childhood development skills, among other subjects. Parent mailboxes near the front entrance are stuffed daily with training material and letters about events that foster parent-child bonding, Chang reported.
Texas’ youngest students need more holistic programs like United Way’s Success by 6.
Though we cannot expect immediate improvements in school readiness under the United Way’s action plan, the program is still a worthy endeavor.
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Every day in Austin, we’re working to ensure each child has access to high-quality education, every family has the tools they need to be financially stable, and health and human services are readily available for all.