Preschool: Public Policy Gets Personal, Early Childhood Resources and Research

By Josiah Brown

A new school year brings renewed attention to school readiness. More personally, the search for a preschool and now my daughter’s enrollment prompt these reflections on early childhood resources, policy, and research – in the New Haven region, across Connecticut and beyond.

About 70 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. attend center-based programs, while fewer than half of 3-year-olds do. Studies in Oklahoma and elsewhere suggest the academic, among other, benefits of effective, broadly accessible preschool. (See, for example, National Institute for Early Education Research, as well as other sources cited below.)

We should seek not only safe, playful, learning-rich early experiences for our own children, but also a system in which such opportunities are available to all. In that spirit and inspired by reports like this one – which called for “more constructive cross-fertilization among the domains of science, policy, and practice” – these observations aim to connect the personal and the public. Readers may find information about local early childhood resources, along with context for those different “domains.”

My daughter starts preschool this month at Creating Kids, associated with the Connecticut Children’s Museum. Because that year-round program also offers care for younger children, there is a possibility that my son – not yet one – will eventually join her, though a place isn’t assured.

My wife and I have been glad to discover that, in contrast to the particular scarcity of slots in accredited centers for children under age three, there are more options once a child turns three. Still, decisions are difficult, especially due to the pressures of timing and partial information about lotteries, waiting lists, and of course costs.
Considerations include safety, social development elements, structure vs. creative freedom, pure play vs. academic/cognitive orientation, indoor vs. outdoor/physical components, location/convenience, schedule, facilities, experience and skills of educators, and therefore salaries and costs.

With quality uneven and the rewards of strong programs established, evident too are the emergence of achievement gaps by the time many children enter kindergarten or first grade. Indeed as early as age three, children’s vocabularies can vary widely, as researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley have shown.

Economists increasingly make an explicit cost-vs.-benefits case for early education, emphasizing return on investment:

*James J. Heckman, at the University of Chicago, has written of “Schools, Skills, and Synapses.” He and Dimitry V. Masterov articulate “The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children.”

*Arthur Rolnick, with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is known for work on “the economics of early childhood development.”

Testimony comes also from expert medical doctors such as Harvard’s Jack P. Shonkoff, who chairs the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, which combines scholars in neuroscience, developmental psychology, pediatrics and economics, and who visited Connecticut for a presentation in January 2008. Shonkoff’s collaborator Deborah A. Phillips, a psychologist at Georgetown, co-edited with him “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development.”

Counterparts are at institutions including Yale and its Child Study Center, whose recent work on infancy and early childhood is summarized here, with disabilities such as autism among the concerns addressed. Yale’s Edward Zigler Center (formerly Bush Center) in Child Development and Social Policy has extensive links here.

Selected research centers beyond Yale are the Harvard Family Research Project, the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina, and the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers.

Foundational research includes the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study and Carolina Abecedarian Project. A study of Chicago preschools, described in a May 9, 2001 New York Times article “Gains Found for the Poor in Rigorous Preschool,” provides another example. In the Chicago case documented in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the preschool program, run by the public school system, required parents to participate in children’s homework assignments and helped families with health care and social services. According to the Times account by Jacques Steinberg, ‘‘It’s more than just providing basic literacy skills,’‘ said Arthur J. Reynolds at the University of Wisconsin, who led the study. ‘‘You’ve got to put parents in classrooms, as well as kids.’‘ Diane Ravitch agreed the Chicago study was encouraging: ‘‘if you have a clear focus, you can improve language and literacy, and have other good effects.’‘ Further evidence for the importance of involving families comes from the Parent-Child Home Program. A recent ETS summary report, by Paul Barton and Richard Coley, examined “The Family: America’s Smallest School.”

In our state, policy, advocacy, and child literacy organizations include:

• Connecticut Commission on Children

‚Ä¢ Connecticut Voices for Children, whose reports include “Investing in the Early Years: A Great Return for Kids and for Connecticut,” by Cyd Oppenheimer. This brief argues for increased “funding for Care4Kids child care subsidies; adequately funding initiatives like State-Funded Child Development Centers, Head Start and School Readiness; enacting paid family leave; and investing in professional development opportunities and other quality enhancement initiatives.”

• Discovery Initiative of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund

• Early Childhood Education bureau of the State Department of Education
Early Childhood Research and Policy Council and Early Childhood Education Cabinet, which prepared “Ready by 5 and Fine by 9: Connecticut’s Early Childhood Investment Framework”

• First Years First, a Community Foundation for Greater New Haven project

• New Haven Reads and its Book Bank, which offers free books to families and tutoring for kids

• Read to Grow, which gives books to families of newborns and promotes early reading

• Success by Six, a United Way project

(Because children’s learning cannot be considered without concern for their health, one could include, for example, Casey Family Services, the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, Connecticut Health Foundation and Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut on a list of related organizations.)

In exploring waiting lists and various child-care centers’ areas of focus, philosophies, facilities, policies, and schedules, my wife and I found a range of programs, some of which accommodate only children three and up, some of which also have offerings for children under age three.

Local resources include the New Haven Public Schools Magnet Office (for application, lottery and school tour information) and Early Childhood Office. Pre-kindergartens are at Barnard, Daniels, Davis, Jepson, King/Robinson, Mauro, and MicroSociety magnet schools, with information available in January for enrollment the following fall. See: http://www.nhps.net/magnet/
In addition to the magnet preschools, New Haven offers “Early Head Start, Head Start, School Readiness, and DSS daycare programs. . . . Daycare and Early Head Start programs serve children 6 weeks to 3 years, while preschool programs serve 3-5 year olds.” For more information: http://www.nhps.net/earlychildhood/index.asp

Other local organizations my wife and I have encountered – far from a comprehensive list – include:
All Our Kin
The Connecticut Children’s Museum and its Creating Kids program
Bethesda Nursery School
Calvin Hill Daycare Center
Children’s Preschool
Creative Arts Workshop
Edith B. Jackson Child Care Program
Leila Day Nursery
Neighborhood Music School
Phyllis Bodel Childcare Center
Yale-New Haven Hospital Day Care Center
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, more than half of the young children in the U.S. receive care of only poor or fair quality, with care for infants and toddlers notably substandard. (Judith Warner cites the figure of 61 percent in the December 7, 2006 edition of “Domestic Disturbances.”)
Confronting this problem, the “Knowledge into Action” section of “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development” asserts that
Resources . . . should be devoted to translating the knowledge base on young children’s emotional, regulatory, and social development into effective strategies for fostering: (1) the development of curiosity, self-direction, and persistence in learning situations; (2) the ability to cooperate, demonstrate caring, and resolve conflict with peers; and (3) the capacity to experience the enhanced motivation associated with feeling competent and loved. . . . The time is long overdue for society to recognize the significance of out-of-home relationships for young children, to esteem those who care for them when their parents are not available, and to compensate them adequately as a means of supporting stability and quality in those relationships for all children, regardless of their family’s income and irrespective of their developmental needs. . . . It does appear, however, that development of the neural systems supporting cognitive, social, and emotional competencies remains open to experience at least through adolescence. In fact, the brain’s ongoing plasticity enables it to continually resculpt and reshape itself in response to new environmental demands well into adulthood. It is important to emphasize that these findings do not in any way diminish the importance of the early years. They simply remind us of the continuing importance of the years that follow.
Such a balanced approach can animate efforts to ensure as positive as possible an early learning experience for every child, without abandoning those young people whose first years fall short.

The New Haven Early Childhood Council has an urgent mission: “All children will enter Kindergarten with the skills, knowledge, love of learning and support necessary to succeed.”
Together, educators, families, and the broader community are pursuing this mission. Yet much remains to be done, locally as well as nationally not to mention globally, to counter inequities that often constrain children’s prospects to learn and thrive. Parents and other family members play a singular role with primary responsibility. But there are systemic inequalities. And in some sense, every child is our child.

Opportunity, prevention, and if necessary early intervention are needed from the prenatal stage forward – the earlier, the better. Still, it’s never too late to expect more from, and to bolster, a young learner. . . or not so young. We are all learners, or should be.
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For additional information on the New Haven Early Childhood Council, see here.

An earlier opinion piece addressed related topics.
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Josiah H. Brown lives in New Haven with his wife and two young children. He is associate director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and a volunteer with organizations including Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven and the Greater New Haven Literacy Coalition.
He posts occasionally to his blog.
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Related recent news stories include the following from the New York Times:

August 23, 2008 A Promise of Pre-K for All Is Still Far Off in New York By WINNIE HU
“Ten years after the goal was set, fewer than 38 percent of 4-year-olds attend state-financed classes.”

August 6, 2008 Where the Race Now Begins at Kindergarten By WINNIE HU
“With the recent boom in the city’s under-5 set, the competition for kindergarten places can rival that of Ivy League admission.”

July 15, 2008 New Vision for Schools Proposes Broad Role By SAM DILLON
“Randi Weingarten, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, says she wants to replace a focus on standardized testing with a vision of public schools as community centers.”

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