A hallmark of President Barack Obama's recently released early childhood education plan is federal funding to expand pre-kindergarten for low- and moderate-income children, with mandates for state-regulated quality control and continuous program evaluation.
This is welcome news because lower-income children start kindergarten well behind their wealthier peers in their academic development, and something clearly needs to be done. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's support for early childhood programs in Connecticut dovetails well with the president's vision.
If we want to reduce educational disparities due to poverty, we need a many-faceted effort that starts early in life. To start, we need better prenatal care and parents included in the effort long before kindergarten.
A pre-kindergarten program we launched last summer in Middletown offers a high-impact, low-cost approach that fits in nicely as part of a comprehensive system of more effective early childhood education. In just five weeks and on a shoestring budget, we gave 13 children a valuable extra boost before starting kindergarten Our experiment convinced me that this idea can work.
Research has highlighted factors that are critical at kindergarten entry, so our curriculum targeted those areas: self-control, verbal language and mathematical reasoning. We strove for the joyful, nurturing atmosphere that is observed in high-quality preschools and that studies consistently show to have long-term benefits.
We focused our limited time to address the well-documented "experience gap" between poor and non-poor children — simple opportunities to learn about the world, develop curiosity and build vocabulary. Stimulating moments ranged from tasting new foods such as cherries to playing fun math games, feeding alpacas and taking walks to neighborhood restaurants. The children soaked up these experiences and the language that accompanied them.
One child started using pronouns in her speech. Another girl, who was bright but very shy, thrived in the weekly sign language lessons. The children's scores on a standard test of kindergarten readiness echoed what the teachers and parents witnessed firsthand: The gains were measurable and statistically significant. In our program and similar ones, the progress was particularly remarkable in children who did not speak English at home and in those without previous preschool experience. After just one month, these children were visibly more prepared for kindergarten.
In the fall, the families who had participated in our program were more comfortable talking to teachers and more engaged in the school community.
The experience was also transformative for the college students who served as the teachers. Students who have cultivated a love of learning and books are eager to share these values with young children. What's more, by incorporating college students, summer programs create a natural pathway for research on early education to impact the classroom.
Many child development experts have struggled to advocate successfully for developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood settings, such as time for unstructured play, outdoor play and rich conversations. Teachers who understand why children need to run around and how they learn from playing are more likely to prioritize these needs. College students, with some guidance from experienced teachers, are in an excellent position to adopt this mind-set. Although some may wonder if college students are up to the task, I watched them come up with fresh, inspired ideas and implement them brilliantly.
On a practical note, summer pre-K programs are inexpensive to run. They need only a few basic supplies, modest teacher stipends and existing school space that is underused during the summer. Using the actual building where children will start kindergarten has the extra benefit of reducing children's stress as they transition to school. A staff that includes a trained teacher and carefully chosen college students can provide an excellent child-to-teacher ratio comparable to the best private preschools.
All children deserve to start kindergarten prepared to succeed. A short, high-impact summer program can provide a beneficial stepping stone for children who might otherwise struggle in kindergarten. Summer pre-K cannot be the end of the conversation for addressing the crisis of early childhood education, but it might be a great place to start.
Anna Shusterman is an assistant professor of psychology at Wesleyan University and the creator of Kindergarten Kickstart in Middletown.Copyright © 2015, CT Now