Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Preschool can lift low-income kids Series: Critical Years

Second in a series The temperature was pushing 90. The air-conditioning was out. But that didn't faze the 4-year-olds in the Woodson South Child Parent Center on the South Side. They were on.

At the math table, five were engaged in a serious game of war. That's the card game where everyone draws a card and the player with the highest number gets to scoop up all the other cards. At Woodson, the game is called "more," after the concept being "taught."

At the neighboring "writing" table, a boy and a girl were drawing pictures and embellishing them with scribbles. The boy then "read" his story to a teacher aide, who printed it for him.

In the corner playhouse, three boys were taking plastic vegetables, fruits and meats out of cupboards. Each piece had its place, marked with a picture and the name of the food. That way, when it came time to put the food away, the boys were drawn into the mental activities of matching and making a connection between the food and its name as it appears in print.

Elsewhere, youngsters were painting at easels, pasting collages, paging through books and making trains and bridges out of blocks and construction toys.

Surveying this noisy, multi-ring circus, Jacquelynne Gilmore, principal of the child parent center and its home school, Woodson South, smiled and said: "They're learning. They're learning through play."

Woodson is situated in one of the poorest communities in Chicago. For want of money, time or know-how, parents there don't provide the environment for learning that typifies middle-class homes.

The Board of Education's child parent centers; the new state-funded preschool program; Head Start, and a variety of community preschool programs are helping fill in the gap for about 40 percent of such families, a Chicago Sun-Times study shows.

According to a random sample of Chicago public school kindergarten teachers, 69 percent of low-income children with preschool were prepared for kindergarten, while only 46 percent of low-income children without preschool were prepared.

The same picture emerged when teachers were asked to report how many of their pupils could do specific things. For example: More than 5 out of 10 children with preschool could tell their teachers both their first and last names and could speak in complete, simple sentences. For children without preschool, the ratio was less than 4 in 10. 6 out of 10 children with preschool could identify the colors red, blue and yellow. For children without preschool, the ratio was 4 in 10. More than 5 out of 10 children with preschool could draw a recognizable complete human figure, such as a stick figure. For children without preschool, the ratio was slightly more than 3 in 10.

These and other tasks on the Sun-Times questionnaire were suggested by early childhood specialists and classroom teachers as indicators whether children had received the kind of verbal and mental stimulation that prepares them for school.

While preschool helped, it did not bring low-income children up to the level of middle-income children. On only one item did poor children with preschool come out as well as middle-income children - 26 percent could print their first and last names, compared to 17 percent of the more affluent children.

The value of preschool for children from low-income homes was underscored again when teachers were asked if kindergartners with preschool stayed ahead of their non-preschool classmates throughout the school year.

In cognitive, or thinking, activities, 39 percent of the teachers said children with preschool were ahead a lot and another 33 percent said they were ahead a little. Twenty percent said there was no difference between the two groups, and 8 percent said children with Lexington MA Preschool were behind.

Child parent centers in particular received a vote of confidence. Fifty-seven percent of teachers whose classes had a majority of such youngsters said pupils with preschool were a lot ahead of their non-preschool classmates in cognitive activities. Another 19 percent said they were ahead a little.

A similar - but weaker - pattern emerged when teachers rated the social behavior of children who attended preschool: Youngsters with preschool tended to do better - but not as much better as they did in cognitive activities - and children who had attended child parent center preschools did best of all.

Child parent centers are the Cadillac of Chicago school programs. Created 21 years ago with the first gush of federal War on Poverty funds, they consist of four to 11 classes of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds served by a head teacher, a clerk, a parent resource teacher, a school-community liasion, classroom teachers and several classroom aides (though not one for every classroom). Class size is limited to 20, and classrooms are amply equipped.

Compare that to the description of a kindergarten that one teacher scrawled across the Sun-Times questionnaire:

"There are over 30 children with one teacher and an aide, assigned for 45 minutes daily. My budget totals $40 for next year. If I want materials I have to rely on proceeds from donut sales or my own funds."

The Head Start and state-funded preschool programs have staffing similar to that in child parent centers. But because classes are dispersed - with no more than two to a school - they don't have the benefit of full-time, on-site supervision and support, except for the principal.

Child parent centers stand out not only for their resources but also for the steps they take to bolster parents, help them help their children and, in the process, establish a good relationship between home and school.
Parent rooms are the site of lessons in crafts, child development, everyday economics, high school subjects and English. Children aren't accepted for the program unless parents promise to participate and serve as volunteer helpers in their children's classrooms.

Marilyn Flores goes daily to the parent room at the Von Humboldt Child Parent Center, 1345 N. Rockwell, where two of her children are enrolled. There she has learned how to sew, make artificial flowers and create activity books for her children.

She has learned important lessons from her children's teachers, too, like: Hitting children does not help them learn.

"I used to hit my child," said Flores. "My son's teacher taught me (not to). . . . She was so patient. I wanted to be patient, too."

Marina Montijo, who has three children at the Von Humboldt center, said she's learned how to play with her children in a way that helps them learn.

"You have to be like a child," she said. "You can't just sit there. You have to work with them, go on the floor with them, be a child just like them. They enjoy that."

In turn, Montijo is teach ing her husband what she has learned about interacting with children.
"I tell him to ask the kids questions, and he does," she said. "He asks the kids questions and they get involved."

The enthusiasm of Flores and Montijo illustrate a theory early childhood experts have about the preschool advantage: Parents who enroll their children probably are more supportive to begin with, as suggested by the fact that they enrolled their children.

Like many other school programs, child parent centers have suffered from budget cuts. At one time they were served by their own teams of social workers, speech therapists and nurses.

At one time they also extended through third grade instead of just kindergarten. Older children who had enrolled as 3-year-olds scored at the national average on reading tests, board officials say.

But that success became the program's undoing in the early primary grades. In 1974, the year the program won official recognition as a national model, the federal government cut off funding for grades one, two and three. The children in these grades were no longer educationally disadvantaged, the feds argued, and therefore were not entitled to money earmarked for the disadvantaged.

While the Sun-Times study makes a case for child parent centers and other early intervention programs, controversy has dogged most research on the effectiveness of preschool - and especially so the many years of study on the federal government's Head Start program.

Project Head Start was launched in 1965, as part of the War on Poverty, to provide preschool experience for low-income children.

In 1969, a major study by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio State University concluded that the program produced no lasting benefits and was not worth the cost.

More recently, Head Start commissioned a massive survey that examined every study ever done of the program, published and unpublished. The result was the Synthesis Project, which concluded in 1985 that: Head Start pupils enjoy significant immediate gains in intellectual ability as measured by IQ and achievement test scores. Two years afer Head Start, low-income children who did not take part in Head Start catch up with the Head Start children. The Head Start children do not regress. But they do not maintain their advantage in IQ and test scores.

The Synthesis survey reported that a few studies do find evidence of some long-term effects: that Head Start alums down the line are less likely to be retained in grade and less likely to be placed in special education classes.

Such long-term benefits also were found by the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies at Cornell University (1983), which analyzed the impact of 11 experimental early-intervention programs.

But only two of those programs were Head Start programs. The others were privately sponsored initiatives that were well-funded and professionally staffed. And one of those was the widely publicized Perry Preschool Project conducted by David Weikart in Ypsilanti, Mich.

The Perry project produced "real life" gains that have lasted more than two decades - including a reduced delinquency and arrest rate, a reduced teenage pregnancy rate, an increased employment rate at age 19 and a decreased rate of welfare dependency at age 19. And its sponsors estimate that every dollar spent on the experimental project saved up to $6 in social costs.

Head Start advocates argue that a preschool program can not provide a one-shot inoculation that will carry children successfully through all their years of schooling.

"I think the data tell us that Head Start does a very effective job of preparing children for public school," said Allen N. Smith, a research psychologist who served as government project officer for the Synthesis survey. "I think the public school does not do an equally good job of dealing with those children." Smith added:
"What is needed really is more emphasis on public school activities that would allow for the same level of growth that children attained when they were in Head Start. And we have been working with public school systems in the last year or two to develop transition-oriented programs that would in fact enhance that kind of continuity in academic stimulation."

But the federal government actually started trying that back in 1967, when it introduced a national program called Project Follow Through to build on the gains children had made in Head Start.

The project was supposed to be a major service program, as extensive as Head Start, that would extend educational intervention through third grade.

Follow Through still has its ardent champions, who say it has produced some excellent individual programs. But the over-all operation didn't live up to expectations. And it survives today only at a much-reduced level of funding.

What's the bottom line here?

Some advocates of early intervention suggest that programs including Head Start don't start soon enough.
That case is argued by Burton L. White, director of the Center for Parent Education in Newton, Mass., and author of The First Three Years of Life.

By age 3, said White, most children headed for scholastic difficulty are already significantly behind their peers in intellectual and linguistic skills.

"Good language acquisition is the best single indicator of brain power," he said. "And poor language acquisition is the single most common problem associated with underachievement in school." White continued:

"There is no language ability at birth. A child by age 1 may understand five to 10 words and a few instructions like `wave bye-bye.' By age 3, the average child understands roughly 70 percent of everything he's going to use in ordinary conversation for his entire lifetime.

"The child who is delayed at age 3 when he enters Head Start invariably, with virtually no exceptions, is behind on language. And if he's nine months or more behind on language, the chances are very good he'll never be an average student. Ever. The probability that any Head Start program is going to make him even average is very, very low."

White said "modest success" can be achieved under special conditions by a few well-funded and highly sophisticated programs like Perry Preschool. But such remediation, he said, is very expensive, hard to do - and, even under the best of circumstances, unlikely to completely reverse early losses.

Others, including Lisbeth B. Schorr, view preschool success stories as far from modest.

Looking at the same data, in her book Within Our Reach, Schorr writes of "two decades of dazzling successes in providing care and education for disadvantaged preschool children."

She pronounces Head Start "one of the most successful legacies of the War on Poverty," and she concludes: `The basic Head Start model has proved to be sound. . . . The results are measurable and dramatic."
The middle ground is taken by Perry Preschool's Weikart and his High/Scope colleague, Lawrence J. Schweinhart, who criticize the Synthesis survey for lumping together all Head Start projects.

"Despite what Allen Smith says," said Schweinhart, "I don't think you can draw any conclusions about a national project with the variety in it of Head Start. You can't say unequivocably that Head Start works or Head Start doesn't work. You've got good Head Start programs, and you've got bad ones. You can say that's it's hard to find long-term effects, that there are very few longitudinal studies, that the study designs are generally not good enough to find long-term effects. But you can't go beyond that and make general claims about Head Start." EL3 Weikart and Schweinhart even object to enthusiasts who say that the Perry Preschool track record proves that Head Start works, or that preschool works. EL3.1 That record, they say, proves only that a preschool program can work - if it is a quality program with adequate funding, a skilled staff and a carefully planned curriculum. EL3.1 They add that high-risk children deserve such programs - and White agrees - because preschool has now become the norm for children in this country, which is supposed to be a country of equal educational opportunity. As Weikart and Schweinhart put it:
"The majority of parents who can afford to enroll their children in preschool programs do so, and they seem to do so regardless of the weight of evidence on program effectiveness. . . . Therefore, program effectiveness aside, preschool program participation for low-income children is an issue of equity."

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