06/20/2018 — Atlanta, GA - Construction and renovation is underway at the former DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts in Atlanta, Wednesday, June 20, 2018. The school is being transformed into an early learning center for more than 150 3-year-olds for the 2018-2019 school year. DeKalb County School District officials have tagged early learning as its latest tool to boost student outcomes, putting nearly $2 million toward an early learning center. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

New DeKalb school starts kids learning younger

DeKalb County School District officials hope opening its doors to students as young as 3 will give them — and the district — a better chance to succeed later.

Registration began recently for the district’s Early Learning Academy, which expects to receive some 200 3-year-old students when school begins in August. They will be housed in the old Terry Mill Elementary School building in south Atlanta, where renovations have already begun at one of the campus’ buildings.

“With this, we’ll be able to support early detection of social emotional behavior issues we often may see with students, and give them a foundation of success,” said Zack Phillips, the district’s early childhood coordinator.

Superintendent Steve Green discussed early learning programs as a possibility when he arrived in 2015. So far, he’s poured money into decentralizing the school district’s administration and adding support staff to schoolhouses. Tangible gains have been small, with DeKalb’s standardized test scores showing some improvement. The district continues to trail state averages in the Georgia Milestones exams as well as the College and Career Ready Performance Index, a state report card on public schools.

The district rolled out a new curriculum at the beginning of the last school year, but it’s too soon to know how well that worked. As Green begins his fourth year with the district, the early-learning path is the latest route he’s choosing in his by-any-means-necessary approach to improve DeKalb’s schools.

Phillips said the district has built a curriculum around the state’s early learning standards, giving students reading, writing, math, science and social studies, as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), coding, free expression, art and movement, which he said lend themselves to developing critical thinking skills on the front end with a lot of hands-on learning. Social service groups have signed on to assist parents, who are their child’s first teacher, Phillips said.

“If there are any gaps, we will provide a platform to push through those challenges on the front end of their education journey, as opposed to waiting until the back end where they haven’t developed those skills to be successful in the classroom,” he said.

DeKalb is pouring its hopes into early childhood education as Head Start program participation has waned nationally. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) The State of Head Start report, 3- and 4-year-old participants have decreased between 2007 and 2015 in Head Start programs, where eligibility is based on the federal poverty level, with some exceptions. Enrollment of children under 3 more than doubled in the same time period.

NIEER’s The State of Preschool 2017 suggests that states are investing more than ever in preschool, but per-child spending fell in the last year of reporting. Few states offer programs for the majority of their 4-year-old residents, and at least four states served fewer of them in 2017 than in 2002, when NIEER began collecting data.

Head Start classrooms typically provide stronger support for social and emotional development than for instruction related to language and cognitive development, according to NIEER’s State(s) of Head Start. It said teacher qualifications vary dramatically from state to state, along with teacher pay. Phillips said classes at the Early Learning Academy will include two instructors, including one certified teacher, with about 15 students in each classroom.

Tim Bartik, senior economist for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., said outcomes for children, as well as test scores, are evidence that preschool pays off, and affects graduation rates or whether a person gets a job, goes to college, or is involved in crime.

“The learning that takes place … it’s not just directly what you learn, but how it sets you up, that this could have a long term effect and not just depreciate,” he said. “It tends to build on itself over time.”

Children learn more before they turn 5 than they do throughout a K-12 career, said Marla Dean, executive director for Bright Beginnings, an early childhood and family learning center dedicated to serving homeless children in Washington, D.C. Data indicates that outcomes are significantly impacted by the learning that takes place then, she said, pointing out that it costs more to house an inmate in Los Angeles for a year than it does to attend elite universities like Harvard or Stanford.

“We just need to understand we pay now or we pay later,” she said. “That is really the case.”

Pre-K is offered free for many Georgians thanks to funding provided by the Georgia Lottery. Other programs can cost as much as $15,000. A quality pre-K program can yield remarkable results, Dean said.

“It is far less expensive than … what ends up happening with our children on the other end, what we see when they don’t graduate high school or end up in the criminal justice system,” she said. “It’s an endless hole of cost with little return of investment.”

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