Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited rural Kentucky on Friday to showcase the benefits of preschool education that starts before birth.

Duncan stopped by the home of a family in Whitley County that participates in a home-visiting program for families with infants and toddlers.

“We know that introducing quality learning opportunities early gives children the best chance to enter school ready to succeed,” said Mark Shriver, senior vice president for strategic initiatives for Save the Children, which runs the program. “What’s happening right here in Whitley County can serve as a national model for expanding access to early education for all children,” he said in a press statement.

Home visiting, which would be expanded as part of President Obama’s plan for universal preschool, is preschool in its earliest form.

Through programs across the country, nurses, social workers or trained mentors offer support to new or expectant parents and teach them skills that will help them become better teachers for their children.

The intervention, targeted to families that are poor or struggling in other ways, is meant to bridge an achievement gap that is already apparent by the time children are 2 or 3 years old.

Many programs are focused in cities. Save the Children serves 12,500 children in mostly rural Kentucky. Its Early Steps to School Success program works with parents to boost their children’s development and connects families, who are often isolated, to other families and local preschools.

“There is a lot of need in urban centers,” Shriver said. “But in rural America, poverty levels are higher, obesity rates are higher, unemployment rates are higher, and resources are less.”

The program touts strong results: eight in 10 of the 3-year-olds in the program score at or above average for vocabulary acquisition.

Duncan’s visit came at the end of a two-day tour through Ohio and Kentucky to highlight the educational needs of rural America.

Also on his schedule were speeches at the Rural Education National Forum in Ohio and the FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) convention, as well as a roundtable discussion with Berea Promise Neighborhood community in Kentucky, the country’s first rural Promise Neighborhood grant recipient.