Maryland scores big in Race to the Top grant

December 16, 2011

Maryland is one of nine states that won a total of $500 million in a competition for federal grants to improve early childhood education, Obama administration officials announced Friday.

The state’s share will be about $50 million over four years, which will help pay for a number of measures meant to ensure that more children — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — enter kindergarten with skills they need to succeed.

“We see that when kids come into school with considerable deficiencies, their chance to catch up is very slim,” said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for early childhood development. “We’re going to give the children that are at risk a fighting chance to make it before they start school.”

Maryland already guarantees publicly funded preschool to needy 4-year-olds and has long been seen as a leader in early childhood education. The grant will help the state focus on bolstering the quality of day care and other programs for younger children.

The education department will develop common standards for early learning programs and partner with Ohio to create a new way to measure readiness for kindergarten.

The state will also train licensed child care providers; implement a rating system that allows parents and policymakers to judge programs; and require caregivers to screen kids for developmental delays and health problems.

“We feel that the whole child is being addressed,” Grafwallner said.

The Early Learning Challenge Fund grants are part of President Obama’s signature Race to the Top initiative. In previous rounds, states competed for $4 billion for efforts to improve elementary and secondary schools.

In this round, states were required to explain how they would ensure that the current patchwork of early education opportunities — ranging from state-run preschools to private licensed day care centers and federal Head Start programs — all have trained staff with the tools they need to prepare kids for school.

Experts said the grants shine a welcome light on the need for innovation and investment in early learning.

“It sort of feels like an alarm clock has gone off and finally everybody is waking up to what the research has shown has shown for a very, very long time about the importance of intervening with very high-quality programs for all young children,” said Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Studies have shown that experiences children have from birth to kindergarten make an enormous long-term difference. Those who attend high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school and hold a job, and less likely to go to prison.

Other winners announced Friday were California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington state. Six of the nine had previously received Race to the Top grants. Maryland won $250 million last year for elementary and secondary reform efforts.

Virginia did not apply for the early learning grant. The District — where Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has led major investments in preschool — was one of 28 unsuccessful applicants. The departments of Education and Health and Human Services are administering the grants.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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