September 15, 2008

Preschool Showdown

By Barbara Hollingsworth

By Barbara Hollingsworth


Jessica James' house looks every bit like a preschool.

Her family room is painted bright yellow and filled with blocks and other toys, while her dining room is dark green with murals of prowling jungle animals.

Seated in little chairs pulled up to short tables, the children under her care Friday carefully placed and sometimes piled beans onto lines of glue drawn on construction paper in the shapes of the letters B and C.

"Like bumblebees buzzing and crunchy, crunchy cookies," prompted James, stressing the B and C sounds.

James has been working with young children for 20 years -- at times in a center and now in her home. But she gets nervous about the future when she hears Topeka Unified School District 501 officials talk about playing a more expansive role in early childhood education.

James -- joined by three other concerned child care providers -- recently asked school board members to "stay in your lane."

"They've already got problems in the school system," James said as children played Friday. "Why would they want to add onto that?"

The school district this year has been sharpening its sights on early childhood education. Nationally, it has become a focus with at least three states offering preschool for all 4-year-olds. In Kansas, a Governor's Summit on Early Childhood last year showed interest in early childhood programs crosses party lines.

The idea is to take advantage of the early years when children's brains are rapidly developing.

Proponents of increased preschool say that much of the battle public schools face begins long before children walk in the door for kindergarten.

"We end up paying much higher prices later on for remediation costs and special education costs when everything we know about brain science and brain development tells us within the first five years, that is your greatest opportunity," said school board member Patrick Woods.

School board member Janel Johnson, however, is sympathetic to the concerns.

"We don't have to provide everything," said Johnson, who urges the district to focus on children in kindergarten through 12th grades. "We can find someone who is good at doing that, and we partner with them."

The problem, Woods said, is that many children don't receive a preschool education. The district, which offers a limited number of preschool programs for children with special needs or youngsters considered at-risk, maintains a waiting list. It also has a waiting list for its Parents as Teachers program -- a program in which families of young children receive home visits from an educator who offers parenting advice and checks to make sure children are meeting developmental milestones.

A committee created by the school board recently laid out goals for improving early childhood education -- a plan that is going to be pored over again as the district launches a long-range plan.

As is, the committee suggests such ideas as taking family education into neighborhoods through community centers and churches and creating a mobile learning center. Also in the mix is the dream of an early childhood center -- a facility that could provide resources for families and classroom space for expanded preschool offerings. Currently, the district leases space for some of its classrooms and for its Parents as Teachers program, which the plan also calls on expanding.

Even if the district expands its offerings, Woods said the district wants to work with existing providers.

"If they'd look, they'd see the crux of the plan is really around collaboration and partnership," Woods said.

Even if the district significantly increases the number of preschool classrooms, Woods said any such programs would be optional. And many parents, he said, might prefer a private setting that would offer extended hours of care while they are still at work.

Still, James figures it could hurt business if cash-strapped parents have a free option. If money is available for such programs, she said it should go to people already teaching young children.

"Our intention," counters Woods, "is to get the kids who aren't being served."

Topeka USD 501 superintendent Kevin Singer said the preschool and child care providers have realistic concerns.

"They're concerned about their kids' futures and their future," he said.

The programs described by James and others sound like educational opportunities children everywhere would benefit from receiving, he said. Yet, Singer added, research shows many children aren't getting that kind of instruction, and that missing foundation shows when those children start school.

"If we can try to help out in that situation, that makes sense," he said.

Barbara Hollingsworth can be reached at (785) 295-1285

or barbara.hollingsworth

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