Getting off to a smart start

September 06, 2004|by MARLO BARNHART

Carol Wilt knows firsthand the value of early childhood education - not only for her son, but also for herself.

Now a kindergarten teacher at Eastern Elementary School in Hagerstown, Wilt had a high school diploma when she first enrolled her son in Head Start of Washington County years ago.

After seeing preschool's positive impact on her child, Wilt went back to school and received her degree from Hood College in Frederick, Md., so she could help other children benefit from the experience.

"The children who have been in preschool have better attention spans, get along better in groups and are generally in tune when they get into kindergarten," Wilt said. "Without that, teaching can be a lot of crowd control."


A national study found that for every dollar spent on early childhood education, $9 is saved by taxpayers through less grade repetition and special education, increased earnings and more stable employment for those who attended preschool.

Taking that a step further, a Pennsylvania crime-fighting group points to another national poll of kindergarten teachers to illustrate the need for more preschool education funding, saying that early investments also may reduce youth crime and violence.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Pennsylvania has called for increased federal and state funding to expand access to preschool. The National Kindergarten Teacher Survey reinforces its position, Bruce R. Clash, the group's state director, said at an August news conference at a Pittsburgh preschool.

"There is little doubt of the value of preschool for all students," said Paul Pittman, director of Head Start of Washington County.

His fervor is shared by Jill Burkhart, early childhood supervisor for Washington County Public Schools, who also has seen the differences from the perspective of teacher and principal.

"I'm passionate about this - the earlier, the better for the children and the whole family," Burkhart said.

Nine in 10 teachers surveyed in Pennsylvania believed more children would succeed in school if all families had access to preschool programs because educators would spend less time focusing on troubled students, Clash said.

"This poll should be a wake-up call to every parent," Clash said. "You send your child to the finest preschool program, but that child's progress is in jeopardy in kindergarten if the teacher must spend excessive time on the least-prepared children."

Dean Warrenfeltz, principal of Burke Street School in Martinsburg, W.Va., said the worth of preschool has prompted school officials in Berkeley County to establish a pilot project at Miss Irene's Preschool to make the levels of preschool learning more universal.

"Continuity is key as the children move from preschool into kindergarten," Warrenfeltz said. "We are seeing the impact on kindergarten because of the big difference in skill levels of children who were in preschool."

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Pennsylvania is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization of more than 150 victims of violence, police chiefs, sheriffs and other law enforcement officials. It advocates that an investment in early childhood education, after-school programs, child abuse prevention and intervention projects will help reduce crime.

The state group is part of a national group that claims more than 2,500 law enforcement officials, crime victims, criminologists and child development experts as members.

In the 1984 Perry Preschool study in Ypsilanti, Mich., at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds left out of the program were five times more likely to become chronic lawbreakers by the time they turned 27 compared to the children in the program.

Children who don't have the preschool foundation of social and academic skills often fall behind when they enter public school and that failure has been shown to increase frustration levels, educators agree.

Fanny Crawford, executive director of APPLES for Children Inc., said her agency strives to provide infant care, special-needs care and odd hours of care to Washington County families.

"We also help caregivers do the best they can for each child, whether they be the parents or otherwise," Crawford said. "We've seen the difference it makes."

APPLES stands for the Alliance for Parent, Provider and Local Employer Solutions.

Cathie Johnson teaches kindergarten at the Funkstown School for Early Childhood Education, so she knows how positive preschool experiences can be - for the child, the teacher and the other students.

"Preschool children come to us with better motor skills, communication skills and social skills," Johnson said. "Kindergarten is now so heavily academic that it is even more important that the child have all those preschool tools and are used to routine when they come."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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