The three-month long battle over the 2009-2010 Pennsylvania budget left some early childhood education centers without funding and has made others afraid of harmful cuts in the future. Days after some pre-kindergarten programs reopened their doors, after having been delayed by the budget, the Heinz Foundation released a state-wide study demonstrating the benefits of these programs for at-risk children.

ENDING THE DEBATE—Theresa Heinz says she hopes this study will convince government of the importance of early childhood education.

“We believe that this is the definitive study in Pennsylvania on the issue of whether quality preschool education has been worth the public and private investments,” said Heinz Endowments Chairman Teresa Heinz. “The answer to that, we can say now based on hard numbers, is a resounding yes. This is the evidence that will allow us to finally declare victory in the debate that Pennsylvania has been mired in for much too long—whether spending modest amounts on preschoolers’ early education will improve their long-term school performance.”

The findings released on Oct. 22 were the result of a three-year study that followed 10,000 preschoolers from predominantly low-income families. Eighty percent of the children, across all ethnic groups, met state standards for transition into kindergarten after completion of a pre-K program.

Students in the study attended “high-quality” Pre-K Counts programs, which are designed for children who are at risk of school failure, either because of income, cultural or special needs issues.

In order for these programs to be considered “high-quality” they had to meet a number of requirements including a high Keystone Stars rating. According to this rating system the quality of pre-K programs is not dependent on socioeconomic status as several four-star programs were located in low-income areas such as Braddock and Homewood.

Among other significant findings, the study showed a decrease in the need for special education placement after completion of preschool.

Professor Stephen Bagnato, who led the SPECS Research Team from the University of Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Partnerships Program that conducted the study, said students also showed improvements in their social and behavioral skills.

“Quality preschool programs for vulnerable children are not add-ons or luxuries. They are essential to the future school success of these children,” Bagnato said. “So we know a system like Pre-K Counts works well, and now we just need to find out more about the parts of the system that work really well.”

As one of the participating districts, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said the study reinforces the district’s focus on early childhood education as a tool for making sure students are ultimately ready for post-secondary education.

“What this study tells us is that our efforts to ensure students are Promise ready in high school must begin with preschool education classes,” Roosevelt said. “These children are coming to us well-prepared and we need to treat it like a relay race. We need to be able to pick up the baton and keep it going.”

Roosevelt also said he hopes this study will ensure funding streams to pre-K programs and hopefully increase funding in the long run.

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