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Helping Kids Get Ready to Learn

by Fred D. Baldwin

Photo Gallery
Photo of children from Tiny Tots Child Development

At Krackerjax Learning Center, a day-care center in Centreville, Alabama, 18 bouncing four-year-olds swing imaginary baseball bats as they count out their swings, chanting numbers all the way to 25. They sing the days of the week to the tune of "My Darling Clementine" and beam when their teacher gives them high fives. Later, hands on hearts, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

At Tiny Tots Child Development Center, in Fayette, 18 other children sit quietly, entranced by a story. On the walls around them are samples of their art, each child's work labeled with his or her name in large block letters. When the class breaks into small groups, children may draw, stack lettered blocks, or use blunt scissors to cut out squares, circles, and triangles. Others "bake" Play-Doh cookies at a toy stove and set tables for serving them.

This carefully planned fun—some of it exuberant, some requiring concentration—is part of the Alabama Pre-Kindergarten Initiative, a step toward preparing the state's young children to succeed in school. It's taking place at 70 sites across the state. Thirty-nine of those sites are in Appalachian counties, 26 of which have received funding assistance from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). ARC provided funds in each of two years, supporting competitively selected sites in distressed counties or counties without state-funded preschool programs. The grants also supported teacher training.

Long-Term Gains of Early Learning

The pre-kindergarten initiative grew out of a report issued in 2001 by the Governor's Commission on Early Learning, whose membership included educators, children's advocates, and some of the state's most prominent business leaders. Entitled Our Children, Our Future, Our Plan, the report cited research showing the extent to which early learning experiences affect children's later lives. It gave special emphasis to a Michigan study, in which 123 low-income children were followed at intervals for more than two decades. One randomly selected group of these children had been enrolled in high-quality preschool programs at ages 3 and 4; the other had not.

Data collected when these individuals reached age 27 was astonishing. Members of the pre-school group were far more likely to have scored well on tests early in school and to have graduated from high school. As adults, they were four times as likely to earn $2,000 or more per month. Three times as many owned homes. They were significantly less likely to have been arrested, and the young women from that group had fewer out-of-wedlock births.

The Alabama commission projected from this research and other studies that each low-income child participating in an early learning program would more than double his or her chances of entering kindergarten ready to learn, would be 46 percent more likely to graduate from high school, would earn significantly more over the course of his or her working life, and would return $152,000 to government coffers, either in taxes paid or social costs avoided.

It's a view other business executives share. In May 2003, the Business Roundtable, a national group whose members include CEOs from Fortune 500 corporations, urged the federal government to "make high-quality early childhood education a national priority . . . focusing on children most in need." The group concluded that educational programs for three- and four-year-olds would lower long-term educational costs.

"Quality early education, such as pre-kindergarten, is beneficial for all young children, but especially for children living in poverty," says Ellen Abell, family and child development specialist and associate professor at Auburn University, in Auburn, Alabama. "A learning environment that supports children's cognitive, emotional, and social development pays big dividends in school readiness and school success. It has proven implications for completing school and avoiding involvement in social ills like drugs and delinquency."

"We know that children's brains develop rapidly during their first five years," says Trellis Smith-Williams, director of the Office of School Readiness within the Alabama Department of Children's Affairs. "If you wait until kindergarten to stimulate learning, you miss an opportunity. This program gives children who would not otherwise be exposed to early learning opportunities to be as ready for kindergarten as any other child. It levels the playing field."

Addressing Major Learning Goals

The Office of School Readiness recommends curricula based on major learning goals: letter and sound recognition, numbers, colors and shapes, and useful knowledge (like weather, safety, and health). Within these frameworks local sites are free to choose curricula and approaches adapted to their own resources. Participating families pay nothing (although some centers charge for child care extending beyond the program day). Local sponsors cover one-third of the costs with in-kind matching funds.

Preliminary classroom evaluation results from the 2001–2002 program indicate that children made significant gains in general knowledge, grasp of sounds and print as clues to meaning, ability to use language, and mathematics. The highest gains were in general knowledge and math.

Although the program has no income guidelines, Connie Hathcock, owner and director of Tiny Tots, says that 16 of 18 families enrolling children in her program qualified for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. Kimberly Baggett, owner of Krackerjax, says, "We had over 60 people apply for our 18 slots. I got here at six in the morning to clean the room, and people were waiting outside."

Both Bibb and Fayette Counties are classified by ARC as economically distressed. The few available day-care programs offering educationally enriching activities cost $70 or more per week. "Even in two-parent families," says Janell Stokes, director of the Bibb County Industrial Development Authority, "if both parents are making minimum wage, there's no way they can afford day care."

No one expects pre-kindergarten programs like those at Krackerjax and Tiny Tots to have any immediate impact on the economies of distressed counties. Even so, they're regarded as distinct assets. Stokes says that educational opportunities of all kinds are important to firms considering locations in the area. "If we don't promote leadership," she sums up, "things will stay this way. And when you're producing tomorrow's leaders, you've got to start somewhere."

It will, of course, be many years, even decades, before anyone can know exactly how these children will contribute to the future of Appalachian Alabama. In a matter of months, however, their teachers and parents will know how they'll do in school. Local educators express no doubt at all that they'll do far better than they would have if they hadn't participated in these pre-kindergarten programs.

June Traweek, whose duties include oversight of testing and guidance counseling for the Fayette County public schools, says that children who have had enriching experiences, either at home or in a pre-kindergarten program, will arrive in kindergarten knowing letters and sounds, some numbers, and general information like the days of the week and months of the year. "Children from families where reading isn't common," Traweek says, "probably won't know much of that."

"These children can already tell you their favorite author," says Sarah Newton, principal of Fayette Elementary School, where about half the children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. "They're developing a love for books. You know that they'll be better prepared socially and emotionally."

The report that led to the creation of the Alabama Pre-Kindergarten Initiative estimated that every dollar invested in high-quality preschool experiences would yield a payback of over $7. Whatever the final dollars-and-cents benefits may be, the parents of the children in the program say that they tell their children how important education will be in their lives. Many of these parents dropped out of school before completing high school, and, economically and in other ways, they've been playing catch-up ever since. One mother recites a stanza from a song her child brought home, a rhyme about a fuzzy little caterpillar who, to his own surprise, ends up as a butterfly. She makes it sound like a theme song for her own child's future.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.