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Giving kids a real head start

May 3, 2013
Weirton Daily Times

Not so many years ago, school started with first grade for the overwhelming majority of children. Now, a youngster who has not been exposed to educational stimulation before that finds himself behind his classmates at that stage.

Among the most important aspects of the education reform law enacted this year by the West Virginia Legislature is a plan to improve public pre-school programs, starting for children as young as 3 years of age. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made that a priority in his recommendation to lawmakers, and they were wise to agree.

It would be easy for Mountain State residents to feel smug about the status of pre-school programs in our state. Just this week, the National Institute for Early Education Research reported our state is fifth in the nation for the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-kindergarten classes.

Enormous progress has been made in that regard. Last year, about 61 percent of Mountain State 4-year-olds were enrolled in public pre-school programs. That compares to 24 percent just a decade ago.

And, as the NIEER points out, West Virginia has improved the quality of programs, not just the participation rate. The state spends more than $6,000 a year for each pre-school enrollee. The amount of instructional time required for students has been increased. So have requirements for teachers and aides. Eight of the 10 pre-school quality benchmarks set by the NIEER are being met in West Virginia.

But we have no room for complacency. In both participation rates and quality, more work needs to be done.

Remember the reputation the federal Head Start program had just a few years ago? Federal officials often boasted Head Start was doing an excellent job in preparing children for kindergarten and first grade. But during recent years, scholarly studies have indicated the program often is little more than a babysitting service for parents.

There also is the matter of participation by 3-year-olds. We don't do very well there, with just 9 percent of children in that age group enrolled in public pre-kindergarten programs. That is the same percentage as a decade ago.

For now, however, it appears West Virginia is ahead of most other states in early childhood education. Again, we cannot rest on our laurels - or even be certain they are merited.

Early childhood education programs in West Virginia will need to be monitored carefully and objectively to ensure they are doing the job parents and policymakers expect of them. Continual fine-tuning will be necessary.

 
 

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