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Granite State Rumblings: The Strong Start For America’s Children Act

On May 19th a bill to expand quality preschool programs was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate and House. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act was originally introduced in 2013. The 2015 bill was introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, with co-sponsorship from 19 other members of her party. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.).

At the heart of Strong Start for America’s Children is a groundbreaking, 10-year federal-state partnership to boost quality early learning, something that Murray called “one of the smartest investments we can make” in strong schools and our nation.

“As a former preschool teacher, I’ve seen firsthand the transformation that early learning can inspire in a child,” Murray said. “Investing in our youngest learners is critical for children and their families,” and the bill will help families and communities nationwide “gain access to early learning programs and provide their children with the strong educational opportunities that will pay dividends in our future economic growth.”

As Stephanie Schmit outlined in a post for CLASP; both bills would establish a partnership between state and federal governments to equip states to improve and expand high-quality, full-day preschool programs for four-year-olds with the goal of increasing school readiness. Specifically, the Act would advance high-quality, comprehensive early care and education access for young children across the country by:

  • Setting clear expectations for high-quality services, including high staff qualifications and developmentally appropriate and evidence-based curricula and learning environments in high-quality preschool.
  • Providing critical supports to increase the educational attainment of the early childhood workforce.
  • Addressing the needs of low-income working families by allowing schools, Head Start, and child care settings to apply for funds to offer pre-kindergarten, as well as establishing expectations for the provision of full-day services and comprehensive health services.
  • Providing for additional partnerships between Early Head Start and child care programs to ensure that more vulnerable infants, toddlers, and their families have access to the comprehensive early education and family support services that are the hallmark of Head Start.
  • Building on existing state structures by providing funding to help states expand access and improve the quality of existing state pre-kindergarten programs. Because a variety of early education settings are needed to meet the needs of different families, schools, Head Start programs, and community-based child care can compete for resources to provide quality care in communities that need it. States will also have the flexibility to use funds for quality improvements and to serve infants and toddlers.

High-quality early education experiences are widely recognized as key to preparing young children for school success and improving the lifetime employment and earnings of low-income children. It’s now up to members of Congress to move this legislation forward. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act would be transformational for children, families and early childhood systems. It would expand access to high-quality child care and early education services for the youngest, most vulnerable, low-income children and families in the country—providing the strong start that all children need.

Expanding high-quality early childhood education is an issue where Americans from both sides of the political aisle see eye-to-eye. And voters have expressed their overwhelming, bipartisan support for increased federal action, according to a poll by the First Five Years Fund last year.

ml615This bill has the support of more than 70 organizations across the country, including Every Child Matters.

Business leaders, the law enforcement community, brain scientists and economists all agree that early learning is one of the strongest investments we can make as a society.

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act is a critical investment that would provide short-term and long-term economic benefits for states and communities across the nation. We strongly urge Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to come together to pass this important legislation.

Sources: The First Five Years Fund, CLASP, American Federation of Teachers

GROWING UP GRANITE

The following is a piece from NH Public Radio’s weeklong series, The First Decade.

Full-Day Kindergarten Closes Achievement Gap, Yet N.H. Lags Way Behind In Adopting It
By SAM EVANS-BROWN

Kindergarten is a year of transition. Kids are learning how to listen, follow directions, sit still… but while they are making that transition, there’s a lot of mandatory wiggling.

In Mr. Woody’s morning kindergarten class, in Plainfield, a class of students blows off some steam while doing a “wiggle dance.” A stereo plays a children’s song that Mr. Woody sings along to, and the kids giggle and flail.

Mark Woodcock is something of a legend in this town. He’s been at it so long that several of the students in this class are children of his former students. “I am on my second generation here, yes. If I get to the third someone please show me the door, I’ve been too long at the party,” he says laughing.

His half-day program starts with morning circle. The kids take attendance, record the weather, and sharpen their math skills and number sense by counting their days at school. They have library time, they do a lesson on the lifecycle of a frog, they have snack and a bit of free play. To cap it all off, they read a story, also frog-themed.

And then that’s it.

Their three hours are up. The kids run outside to play while they wait for their parents to arrive.

“With three hours, it’s real hard. It’s very stressful,” says Woodcock, “I’m at the point where come May I’m looking at some students and I’m thinking ‘They’re going to first grade! I feel like maybe I haven’t done my job!’”

But that’s about to change.

“I’m over the moon excited about next year. I can balance all of it now, because I have the time now. They can get math and language arts in one day,” he explains, “It also gives me the chance now with a longer day to bring in parts that I’ve dropped off, some of the science, some of the social studies.”

The town of Plainfield voted to go to full-day kindergarten this year. The effort followed a letter-writing campaign led by parent Suzanne Spencer-Rendahl, whose daughter went through half-day kindergarten. At the time, her working schedule made half-day something of a nightmare.

“I had to take her all the way – because there’s not many child-care options in the town – so I would have to take her to Lebanon, drop her off for after-care, and then go to work,” Spencer-Rendahl remembers.

NH Lags Behind In Full-Day K

Plainfield is just the latest district to opt for full-day, and one of nine districts this fall. Next year, there will be more than 90 schools that have chosen to expand their half-day programs.

But compared to the rest of the nation, New Hampshire lags.

A report from Education Week found New Hampshire was second-to-last for attendance at full-day kindergarten. Just 55 percent of kindergarten aged New Hampshire students are in full day programs, compared to 75 percent nationwide. This is in part due to the fact that the state offers funding only for half-day programs, but it’s likely also in part because New Hampshire was the last state to mandate public kindergarten.

Plainfield is not a rich town, but that doesn’t seem to hurt its chances for expanding kindergarten. An analysis done by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies for NHPR finds that districts with high child poverty are more likely to have full-day programs. It found no connection to enrollment trends, property values in towns, or rural versus urban schools.

While many working parents clamor for a longer day, parents as a whole are not a unified block.

“I feel really conflicted about it,” says Emily Twarog who stays home to care for her kids in Plainfield. She baby sits for two others after kindergarten lets out, and says she values the time for unstructured play that her kids get in the afternoon.

“They go to school for a lot of years, and I just enjoy having them home as long as I can,” she says. Twarog says she notices a kind of fatigue in her kids when they are done with class, and thinks a full-day would be too much.

But not every kid is going to a never-ending play-date after school, many parents can’t afford a babysitter or an aftercare program.

“They cost money, so not all kids can get into those programs,” says Mark Woodcock, “and some may be going home with grandparents and they have a quieter day than say kids that are going to another program after me.”

How Much School Is Too Much School?

Chloe Gibbs, a researcher at the University of Virginia, says this question launched her career.

“I really thought it was an open question, do five-year olds really get benefit from being in a classroom for that many hours or are we really keeping them too long past a certain point?” says Gibbs.

But after more than a decade of asking that question, Gibbs says the answer is clear: kids who go to full-day kindergarten do better on tests for years afterward, though other students tend to begin to catch up by fourth grade.

“The effect I find on average is about an additional three, three-and-a-half months of schooling effect,” says Gibbs. That benefit is even higher for kids who come into school with low literacy skills.

Gibbs says full day kindergarten has a bigger impact than smaller class sizes and participation in Head Start programs and it generally costs less.

It seems, in New Hampshire, that’s part of what is convincing towns to extend the day.

Pembroke was one of the first schools in the state to go full-day.

The daily schedule hanging on the wall in Trois Montana’s kindergarten classroom  has more than twice as many classes on it than the one in Plainfield, including separate times for reading, writing, and math. Sitting for an interview during her lunch hour in tiny little chairs at a tiny little table, Montana says she can’t imagine trying to cram her curriculum into a half-day.

“I mean we’ve even seen it where in first grade, they get 8-10 new students from other towns, and most of those kids have had a half-day program and they end up being the low ten percent of the first graders,” she says.

She explains that even those kids that qualify for federally funded Title I programs, which benefit low-income students see a boost. “Those newer kids that came from other towns that had a half-day they’re actually lower than our title kids, so our title kids look incredible! Every single year we see that.”

Keeping up with the Joneses

Pembroke’s kindergarten even attracts parents from neighboring towns who don’t actually live there. Families will sometimes claim they live with a grand-parent or a friend with a Pembroke address to get their kids into a full day program.

That’s certainly what Mr. Woody, the kindergarten teacher up in Plainfield, is hoping for… though he’d like folks to get into to his class through the traditional route.

“Well, we’re hoping we’re going to put together the best dog-gone kindergarten program in the whole Upper Valley, and people are going to be driving down to Plainfield buying up houses left and right, and we’re going to be busting at the seams!” he says, flipping into full kindergarten teacher performance mode.

Some of those families may soon get full-day kindergarten in their own towns. Since 1999, about five schools a year have been expanding their programs, even without funding from the state.

And as towns increasingly find their neighbors have gone to full-day, pressure from parents to keep up with Joneses could be what pushes New Hampshire schools to keep up with the national trend.

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About MaryLou Beaver

New Hampshire Campaign Director Every Child Matters Education Fund
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