Cumberland County’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program offers a first step toward academic achievement for about 240 four-year-old children.
The program provides an early learning environment, laying the foundation for reading and math skills they’ll need throughout their lives and helping youngsters adjust to the day-to-day routines of school life.
“All the kids have had bus safety this year and were able to go on a field trip and ride the bus,” said Rebecca Farley, supervisor of pre-K through eighth-grade curriculum and instruction. “That’s awesome for them.”
Farley is new to the program, having taken the reins at the start of the school year. She’s looking to provide greater consistency to pre-kindergarten programs across the county. This year, all schools are using the same curriculum and Farley has brought the teachers together at least once for professional development.
“They had an opportunity to talk to one another,” Farley said. “In many schools, pre-K is an island unto itself.”
Next year, the teachers will have a new curriculum, which they’ll be evaluating in the spring. There will also be changes to the pre-kindergarten academic standards.
“By the end of the year, they’re beginning to read and counting to 30,” Farley said.
Changes in funding
Tennessee launched its voluntary pre-kindergarten program in 2005, using excess lottery funds. The program focuses on serving at-risk children from economically disadvantaged homes, though services may also be extended to special populations, such as special education students or students needing speech therapy or non-English language speakers.
“The goal with pre-K is to serve those economically disadvantaged students,” Farley said. “Federal guidelines do not serve English language learners in pre-K, but they are identified as tier two students.”
There are 238 children enrolled in the pre-K program this year. Every elementary school has at least one class, and Martin Elementary, Homestead Elementary and South Cumberland Elementary have two classrooms each. About 84 percent of students meet the requirements for tier one enrollment. These are the children accepted into the program first. If additional spaces remain, schools have extended the opportunity to enroll to tier two students.
Tennessee allocates $85 million to voluntary pre-kindergarten programs statewide, with more than 18,000 four-year-olds served last year.
“Last year, there were systems that lost funding,” Farley said.
The state will be looking for programs using developmentally appropriate learning practices with rich literary environment, consistency and cohesiveness across the program.
“One thing I believe does hurt us is we do not provide transportation,” Farley said. “We know there are kids who can’t come because they don’t have transportation.”
Surrounding counties have addressed transportation hurdles in a variety of ways, such as separate routes for pre-K students or placing aides on buses with pre-K students.
Farley noted Cumberland County has received the same amount of funding since the program launched in 2005.
Effectiveness of early childhood education
Academic research on the long-term impacts of early childhood education finds that high-quality programs can impact student learning and achievement into middle school and beyond. Research recently released by Georgetown University, for example, followed students in Tulsa, OK, from pre-K through middle school.
The study found middle school students who attended pre-K programs had higher math test scores and were more likely to take more rigorous classes as they got older. The research evaluated standardized test scores, special education placement, attendance, discipline and more. Overall, the study found pre-K students were less likely to be retained in a grade later in life.
English language learners, however, showed the most benefit from pre-K programs, with dramatic gains in reading after only a few months.
A 2016 study from North Carolina found the gains from high-quality pre-K programs lasted into the fifth grade.
An earlier study by Vanderbilt, however, had suggested the benefits of pre-K programs faded by the third grade. Samuel L. Odom, professor and director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, wrote in a 2016 article in the Raleigh News and Observer that the North Carolina study was consistent with research of other early childhood education programs in Boston, Tulsa, Georgia, and New Jersey.
“In evaluation research, a single study that has starkly different results from the convergence of find of other studies is called an ‘outlier,’” he wrote.
Farley is hoping to provide data on Cumberland County’s pre-K program effectiveness, however.
“We’re going to do a study ourselves looking at the kindergarten readiness assessment all kindergarten students are required to take,” Farley said.
She’ll be looking at reading and math skills as well as tracking attendance and discipline during their kindergarten year.
Pre-K teachers are also taking part in a professional development program sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called Lead, Learn, Excel.
Setting good habits
Pre-K not only offers a learning opportunity for students but for families, as well.
Farley visited each school this fall, holding “Brain Building Breakfasts” with parents.
“We shared information on what their kids would be doing this year,” she said. “We talked about the importance of reading 20 minutes a day with their child and different ways to build good habits during this first school year.”
An emphasis has been placed on attendance in the voluntary pre-K program this year, with Farley tracking each student’s attendance. If students miss a lot of days, the principal reaches out to the family.
“If that continues, we develop an attendance plan to help them address attendance,” she explained.
Students may be removed from the program if they miss too many days.
Attendance and chronic absenteeism will be part of the school system’s accountability.
“They’re beginning to lay the groundwork,” Farley said of the state’s voluntary pre-K attendance policy.
Pre-K registration will be a combined event this coming year, with all parents coming to one location to register their child for pre-K in the 2018-’19 school year.
That will be held May 7, with location and times to be announced.
Parents in the outlying areas will have an opportunity to register at the school, as well.
Farley also hopes to provide greater consistency in drop-off and pick-up times.
As the voluntary pre-K program enters its 12th year in Cumberland County, Farley said many pre-K classrooms still have the equipment they started with in 2005, such as nap mats and blocks.
“I will be surveying the pre-K teachers so we can determine needs and wants for next year,” Farley said.