Pre-k paying off, experts say

Pre-kindergarten — across the nation and in Georgia — is paying off in giving children a head start in learning basic education and life skills, experts said Thursday night.

Regina Bowie, a mother of seven who left the corporate world to become a public pre-k teacher in Fulton County, said the changes pre-k makes in students are easily apparent.

“The effectiveness of it is seen daily. By December, you usually see a turnaround … a totally different child.,” Bowie said during an Atlanta Forward community forum.

The forum focused on what’s ahead for Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-k program after 20 years and was hosted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and PNC Bank. It will be broadcast Monday at 7 p.m. on Georgia Public Television.

About 1.2 million 4-year-olds have gone through the program since it launched in 1992 at a total cost of $4.5 billion. This year, 84,000 youngsters attend 3,800 public and private pre-k classes across the state.

The program gained national notoriety in 1994 when it became the first in the nation open to all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Currently, 57.4 percent come from families on government assistance.

Last year, Georgia’s pre-k program was one of five in the nation to receive a rating of 10, the highest possible, from the National Institute for Early Education Research. But budget cuts, including a bump in the number of students per class, have put that top ranking in jeopardy.

Budget constraints have also increased the clamor for data on the program’s effectiveness.

Bright from the Start: the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning expects to have preliminary results from a longitudinal study of the program’s effects, said Bobby Cagle, DECAL commissioner.

Studies in the 1990s showed that students who went through Georgia pre-k were scoring higher in school readiness and on academics, particularly reading, when they reached the third grade, said Gary Henry, a professor of public and higher education policy at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, who was involved in those studies.

Nationally, high-quality pre-k has been found to have a positive long-term impact on students, Henry said. Female students who have attended pre-k are more likely to finish high school and college. Males who went to pre-k appear to be less likely to depend on government social services and be less involved in crime, he said.

Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of outreach and educational practices at Sesame Workshop, said Georgia’s pre-k program is exemplary because it emphasizes the family and community connections.

Brain research is clear that development from birth to age 5 is critical to a person’s success in life and school, she said.

The panelists were in agreement that more needs to be done to educate the public on the head start that pre-k gives to children and that 4-year-olds are gaining valuable skills learning through play.

“We have to dispel the myth this is glorified daycare,” Bowie said.

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