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California Initiative Renews Preschool Debate

Iris Gonzalez, 4, and teacher Cheryl Smith review the days of the week during a pre-kindergarten class at Cool Spring Elementary in Adelphi. Californians are set to vote next week on whether the state should require public preschools for 4-year-olds.
Iris Gonzalez, 4, and teacher Cheryl Smith review the days of the week during a pre-kindergarten class at Cool Spring Elementary in Adelphi. Californians are set to vote next week on whether the state should require public preschools for 4-year-olds. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

Research shows that "effects of preschool education on middle-income children are somewhat smaller than on the poor, but are still substantive," Barnett wrote in an e-mail. "Studies show that poor children benefit from attending preschool education with middle-income children."

Oklahoma and Georgia have well-established universal pre-kindergarten programs. They were joined recently by Florida. Barnett's institute found that 38 states offered pre-kindergarten in 2004-05, not including federally funded early education programs such as Head Start.

In the District, about 70 percent of 4-year-olds are served by preschool programs, D.C. schools spokeswoman Roxanne Evans said.

Barnett's institute estimates that in Virginia, 24 percent of 4-year-olds receive publicly funded preschool through the state and federal governments. The state Department of Social Services estimate is 20 percent. Regardless, Kaine wants to increase access greatly through an initiative he calls Start Strong.

Maryland's public preschool system serves about 43 percent of the state's 4-year-olds, according to the institute. Maryland school systems have reported a steady rise in pre-kindergarten enrollment in recent years, fueled in part by funding from the 2002 Bridge to Excellence Act.

In September 2003, Montgomery County had about 2,700 students in pre-kindergarten. It now has more than 3,000. Prince George's County pre-kindergarten enrollment jumped from about 3,600 to 4,900 during that time, an increase of more than 35 percent.

Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for early childhood development, said Maryland's program remains targeted to low-income students. But he said a new state law has created a task force to study broader access.

Smith, who has a master's degree in early childhood education, teaches one of five pre-kindergarten classes at Cool Spring. She says education begins in infancy. "You're preparing the child from the day they are born to the day they enter school," she said. But Smith has the children for only 180 days before they enter kindergarten.

As one of those days began last week, the youngsters called out to Smith the days of the week, counted to 24 to mark the date on the calendar, spelled the month "M-a-y" and counted to 169 to mark how many days they had been in school. They studied the letter "N," cutting out examples from magazines and gluing them to sheets of paper. Andrea Reyes and Natalie Avalos, both 5, picked out the letter "N" in their names. "We're finding words all over and N's all over," Smith told them.

Some children from last year's Cool Spring pre-kindergarten program attended nearby Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School this academic year. Langley Park-McCormick Principal Sandi Jimenez said she had three kindergarten classes -- one was made up predominantly of students who had attended pre-kindergarten classes; the other two were not. She said the former class is ahead of the other two in academic and social development.

"The differences are absolutely marked," Jimenez said.


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