The power of pre-K: Model early ed program in Chicago lifts entire family

NBC News - Mesha Exum wonders how her life would have turned out without a stroke of good luck 11 years ago.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

CHICAGO––Mesha Exum wonders how her life would have turned out without a stroke of good luck 11 years ago.

She was 16 with an infant son and thought she would have to drop out of school after finding baby Adonis wet, screaming and unattended at the end of his first day of day care. But a few months later, thanks to a referral from a childbirth support program she’d participated in, Exum landed a coveted spot for her son at Educare, an extended-day, year-round preschool that accepts children as young as six weeks and keeps them until kindergarten.

In retrospect, it was like winning the early childhood education lottery.

As President Obama pushes for a major national investment in the littlest learners, a glimpse into the power of preschool sits less than a five-minute drive from his Hyde Park home.

Obama’s $75 billion proposal for universal preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families has been viewed as a political long shot: The funding would come from an increase in tobacco taxes, and preschools have been hard hit by the federal sequestration, indicating legislators’ willingness to cut rather than invest in early childhood education.

Then on Nov. 13, a bipartisan coalition in Congress introduced legislation that would improve access to early learning programs and boost program quality. Not only would states be able to apply for money to expand pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, they could receive support for earlier interventions like some seen at Educare, the flagship in a national network of 19 schools.

Funding details have yet to be worked out, and if passed, the legislation may ultimately represent a smaller investment than Obama originally sought. But at a time when it’s hard getting Congress to agree on anything, educators and advocates are cautiously hopeful that reforms they view as common sense may finally get their day in the spotlight.

“It’s truly historic legislation,” said Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which runs the Educare network.

Research: Good pre-k reduces future social costs

Famous research by University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman found that every dollar invested in a high-quality early education program saves taxpayers at least $7 in social costs later. The long-term savings decline even before kindergarten, since the older a child is, the harder deficiencies are to repair.

The biggest payoff comes from work with very young children because the more kids learn early, the better their school performance will be down the road.

Yet Early Head Start, the federal intervention program for disadvantaged children ages birth to 3, serves just 4 percent of those whose families are economically eligible. That compares with Head Start programs serving 42 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds.

From a full-day schedule to more stringent educational requirements for teachers to a low staff-student ratio, all of the research-based best practices being pushed in Congress and then some are on display at Educare. The school enrolls 149 children, 98 percent of them African-American and all living at or below the poverty line. It is funded through public and private dollars.

With an annual budget of about $3 million, or $20,000 per child, the center isn’t likely to see mass replication of its entire program, but several specific aspects like a longer day and higher teaching standards could be adapted nationwide to help more kids. Educare’s operators seek to demonstrate––to policymakers and the public––effective strategies to stop poor children from falling behind.

In doing so, it brightens their parents’ prospects as well.

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