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July 16, 2008 > We need high quality preschool

We need high quality preschool

By Sheila Jordan

The end of the school year is always an exciting time for me - I love seeing the proud faces of high school students and their families as they celebrate at commencement ceremonies. Unfortunately, too many students never make it to graduation day - an estimated 30 percent of California's high school students drop out.

High-quality preschool is an important part of the solution to California's high-school dropout crisis. Several years ago, I initiated a new program for high school dropouts that used independent study, alternative schools, community outreach and job training to create an educational alternative for youth who have trouble in traditional schools.

Speaking with the young people in that program solidified my conviction that we must intervene earlier by investing in high-quality preschool that helps put our children on a path to success. Increasing access to high-quality pre-k can narrow the achievement gap and ensure more of our children make it to graduation day.

As a parent, teacher and school administrator, I've seen how important it is to put children on the path to academic achievement by developing their love of learning at an early age. High-quality preschool does just that: Provide children with early academic and social skills that prepare them to be successful learners in kindergarten. But a new report by the RAND Corporation shows we could be doing more to ensure our young children succeed in school.

Through observations and evaluations, RAND researchers found the quality of preschools is mixed - most are engaging and emotionally supportive, but fall short on key features that prepare children for kindergarten.

The children who could benefit most from high-quality preschool - Latinos, African Americans, children whose parents have less education and those from economically disadvantaged families - were least likely to be in programs that prepare them for kindergarten. At best, 15 percent are in such high-quality programs, RAND found.

This has implications for later school success. These groups of children are the same ones who start out behind in kindergarten, and remain behind as they progress through elementary school, the report found.

Here in Alameda County, we recognize the value of preparing young children for lifelong learning. In 2006, I helped lead a group of community, business, early childhood and K-12 leaders in creating a comprehensive early care and education plan.

One of our recommendations was to increase investments to fully fund high-quality programs and address all families' early care and education needs. Currently, those needs are not being met. Alameda County has more than 2,500 preschoolers on a waiting list for subsidized programs.

These are challenging budget times. But there are things we can do now. We can lay the groundwork for strategic investments in the future, raising standards so when funds do become available, we have a system to provide access to high-quality preschool for every child, starting with those who need it most.

Alameda County's plan advocates streamlining the early care and education system. Current requirements result in many preschool agencies operating multiple contracts with the state - a complicated and time-consuming task. AB 2759, the California State Preschool Program Act, which is now being considered by the state Legislature, will solve that by consolidating those five contracts into one.

The bill is part of an early care and education reform package that also includes SB 1629, which will develop a quality rating scale and a funding model to encourage programs to reach and maintain higher levels of quality.

These two bills offer an opportunity to make meaningful changes now, without spending general fund dollars.


Sheila Jordan is the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools. She can be reached at 510-670-4144 or sheilaj@acoe.org.



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