About 6,000 students are enrolled in D.C. school system’s preschool program, and 7,000 or so more attend charter schools and other programs that offer free preschool. The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University estimated the annual cost, across the board, at $122 million in 2010-11.
The institute gives the traditional school system’s preschool standards a favorable rating, in part, because they require teachers to have a college degree and ensure class sizes stay small.
But Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute questioned whether the school system is the best provider of early education. According to his analysis, traditional D.C. public schools spend, on average, $29,000 per student on educating students from kindergarten through 12th grade. “I don’t think anyone would say children in D.C. are getting $29,000 worth of education.”
Michela English, of the nonprofit Fight for Children, which is investing $10 million in early education programs in the District, said the city has been a leader in recognizing the value of early education. “But the coverage is still spotty, and the quality is not uniform, so outcomes are not uniform,” English said.
Fight for Children rates AppleTree an excellent program, and it is one to which the group has given private money to match a large federal innovation grant.
AppleTree’s McCarthy said teaching social skills is an important part of school readiness; children need to learn not only letter sounds and counting but also how to listen, focus, and overcome frustration. AppleTree also recognizes the importance of play — and of naps.
In the classroom, 3-year-olds are still 3-year-old. Most children played quietly or learned to write letters with help from teachers. But one little boy whispered, “I want my mommy.” Another threw sand. A third howled in despair, tears running down his face, after being reminded to pay attention.
A little boy chased a girl around a table trying to get a card she was holding with the letter “U” on it, both of them giggling, until a teacher’s aide sat down with them and showed them how to match the letter to a picture of Uranus, then to match an “M” to Mars.
Pietravalle said she was apprehensive before her son, Joseph, started, wondering whether 3 was too young for school. But he adapted quickly. In his second year of preschool, Joseph, who just turned 5, is reading simple books. “I had no idea how good it was going to be for him,” she said. “It was really eye-opening.”