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AFP InDepth | Pre-K leads the way

Preschool was for a select few, and kindergarten was where you learned how to tie your shoes. Ah, for the good ol’ days, back before we knew just how important the pre-K years are to a child’s intellectual development, and it was enough for our parents to teach us to say our ABCs and to know our colors and numbers and the like before we headed off to school.

Tim Kaine picked up the ball from NCLB and ran with it during his 2005 gubernatorial campaign, pledging to make universal pre-K education a priority in his administration. The economy put the push on hold, but the local Smart Beginnings effort encompassing the Greater Augusta and Greater Rockingham areas is making strides toward making early-childhood education a top priority for parents and policymakers alike.

“Our goal is to be able to identify whether it’s a new program that we need to be considering in our region, is it that we have some pieces in place, but it needs to be streamlined, or is it something that’s working in one of our localities but isn’t working in another, but we want to try to get a clear direction on where we need to go with this,” said Stacie Jackson, the program coordinator of Smart Beginnings Shenandoah Valley, which is bringing together education and community leaders in the Central Shenandoah Valley in a holistic approach to early-childhood education.

That word – holistic – was repeated over and over in my interviews with Smart Beginnings leaders locally. The Smart Beginnings approach is aimed at extending the focus from the traditional classroom focus to also include the local health-and-wellness sector and local business and industry in the equation as well.

“It’s about bringing parents and schools and child-care providers and the Health Department and the Department of Social Services and all these other great programs for children and sitting around the common table and saying, What do we do well, what is needed, and how do we work collaboratively to provide what needs to happen in our communities?” said Pat Kennedy, the director of early literacy initiatives at the James Madison University Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services.

“Early-childhood development is a workforce issue. If I enter school not ready to learn, the chances are that in third grade I’m not going to make third-grade benchmarks. If I don’t make third-grade benchmarks, chances are I’m not going to make fifth-grade benchmarks. If I don’t make fifth-grade benchmarks, there’s a high probability that I’m not going to graduate from high school. It all goes back to those preschool years before they even walk into the public-school system,” Kennedy said.

“The research is in. Early-childhood intervention is what it’s all about. All the way down to figuring out how many kids may be in prison someday. It affects everything about the community and the quality of life that we hope we’re going to have as older citizens, and what we want our children to have as they move into adulthood,” said Cathy Cook, the coordinator of the regional Head Start program.

“We’re just trying to catch up the action with the knowledge. We know how important it is. Now if we can just make our work support the knowledge that we have,” Cook said.

The local Smart Beginnings effort, as you can tell from the comments from the people leading it, is still largely in the information-gathering stage at this point, “trying to assess what our specific community needs are, and in turn that’s happening across the region,” said Andrea Riegel, the director of preschool services for the Augusta County school system.

“We’re trying really hard to have a community approach, which the schools are a part of, but not the whole thing. We’re looking at how we can include our community child-care partners, how we can include the medical aspect, the business aspect, higher education, all the facets in the community that affect 0- to 5-year-olds, and how we can all work together to make sure that a child is ready and can be successful in school.”

An illustration of the stakes comes in the form of a recent report from a group of retired military leaders that said that 75 percent of America’s youth are unfit for military service because they hadn’t completed high school, were unfit or had criminal records.

“I see early childhood education not only as a worthwhile investment in the immediate sense, but also as something that has far-reaching benefits for the future of the individual and society,” Gov. Kaine told the AFP in an e-mail interview on his pre-K initiative.

The pre-K pledge has remained a priority for Kaine even in the face of the economic downturn and the constraints on state spending that resulted. “As the recession has forced us to cut $7 billion out of the budget, we have nevertheless managed to expand our pre-K programs by nearly 40 percent statewide, ensuring that thousands more low-income kids receive this critical educational service,” Kaine said.

“We’ve been able to avoiding making the kinds of drastic cuts to pre-K that we’ve had to make in other areas. Frankly, I don’t think it would right of me to make pre-K education a priority in my campaign and administration and then slash it to ribbons. I’ve also received a lot of bipartisan support in the General Assembly for these programs as well. As a result, we’ve been able to expand pre-K education even in the midst of continuing declines in state revenues and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s,” Kaine said.

“Virginia is definitely making progress on the pre-K front. Since the beginning of my administration, we’ve been able to expand pre-K education by more than 38 percent, ensuring a solid start and a quality education for more than 15,000 at-risk 4-year-olds statewide,” Kaine said.


– Story by Chris Graham

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