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    A Times Editorial

    Pre-K programs need aid

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

    In light of a definitive study showing intensive preschool education and family services can improve children's lives, Florida should be careful to avoid swimming against the tide in pre-kindergarten education.

    Among the study's results: By graduation, preschoolers had mastered the alphabet, learned to write their names, read simple words and solved basic addition problems; by age 5, students who went to preschool showed the equivalent of a 10-point gain in IQ scores compared with non-attending peers; more program graduates completed high school; 33 percent fewer graduates were arrested for juvenile crimes; and the preschoolers were much less likely to be assigned to special education classes or to repeat a grade.

    The study, released in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed 1,500 Chicago children from ages 5 to 20. Nearly all the children lived at or below the poverty level. All but 550 received one or two years of academically focused preschool coupled with a program built on continuous parental involvement, health screenings and access to social services. Although earlier studies reached similar conclusions, no researchers have followed so many children for so long. Writing in a companion piece to the JAMA study, Edward Ziegler, widely considered the father of the federal Head Start program, concluded: "The (Chicago) findings show that more intervention is necessary to change the academic trajectory of children who are at risk of failing in school."

    Florida's lawmakers should heed Ziegler's warning. The last legislative session took a bull-in-a-china-shop approach to reorganizing early childhood education. In the process of moving the programs to the Agency for Workforce Innovation, legislators effected a wholesale repeal of statutes governing staff training standards, security screenings and certification of preschool teachers. Now the new state governing board and local coalitions of concerned educators and child advocates have to be especially vigilant in reaffirming high standards in the face of dwindling resources. Local school boards, county commissions and cities will have to be creative in finding money to maintain and expand quality programs.

    The counties and localities that reduce early childhood education to a babysitting program are likely to fall further behind. With such compelling new evidence that investing in young children pays dividends far beyond high school, communities concerned about their futures cannot afford to let that happen.

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