Katie Katie Parsons is the creator of Mumbling Mommy and is a freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. She works from her home office on the east coast of Florida. Most often she writes about life in a combined family of five children and what it's like being a full time work-from-home parent. Feel free to pitch guest post ideas or just drop her a line at katie@mumblingmommy.com.

Why universal preschool can give all kids a boost

My third child will start Kindergarten this fall. In our combined family, it is the third child starting Kindergarten in three years. My first two actually had the same Kindergarten teacher as each other — it remains to be seen if my third will too.

One thing all three of them do have in common though is that they attended the same voluntary pre-Kindergarten program at the local high school. There was one adult teacher, a teaching assistant and 20+ high school students studying early childhood development that created lesson plans for the kids, read with them one-on-one and were the preschoolers'”buddies” on numerous community field trips. The state-funded program (basically an extension of the K-12 public school system) was longer than most preschool ones — from roughly 9 to 2:15 four days per week — and our kids packed a lunch each day to eat with their classmates. The entire program was completely free.

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Our Universal Preschool Start

I enrolled my stepson in the pre-K program just a few months after my husband and I got married. He was four and had never been to daycare, summer camp or even an afternoon “mommy and me” program. Though he already knew the basics of reading, and his math and science comprehension was at (or higher than) Kindergarten levels, I worried that all-day Kindergarten the following year would be a slap in the face for him emotionally and that he would start off his K-12 career on the wrong foot.

My husband was hesitant at first, saying that he had looked forward to spending as much time with his son in that last year before school started. Shipping him off to pre-K for 5+ hours per day would cut into that plan. My stepson’s mother was also hesitant. It would mean less time for her to see her son too. I was determined though. I’d like to think I always had my stepson’s best interest at heart — but it’s possible that at that point I just wanted to make a decision, any decision, to feel a part of his life.

In any case, he ended up attending and his teacher was very understanding of our family situation. He regularly missed Fridays, and we picked him up early if we needed to. For lack of a more original term, he blossomed in the program. He quickly memorized all of his classmates’ names, and made friends, and was anxious to hop in the car to get dropped off in the morning. More than once, the teaching assistant commented on how well behaved (what?) and bright he was and how he was a delight to have in class. At home, he was happier and more interactive with his sisters.

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Did Universal Preschool Help?

Perhaps some of his behavior improvement overall had to do with his age and natural development, but his three parents have always credited the pre-K program for helping him turn a corner. When he started Kindergarten, there was no transition period. He was ready for it — and immediately did well, both academically and behavior-wise. The same has been true of my daughter, who just finished Kindergarten. Not only was she ready academically for the rigors of Kindergarten (yes, it’s tough!), she was excited to start. I’m expecting the same reaction from our third in a few months.

I feel very blessed that we found this specific program, and that it has helped our kids learn so much. We plan to send our final two there too when the time comes. My perception of preschool programs has changed in the past few years as a result of this program, and the concept of free, regulated pre-K programs run by state education entities.

How Universal Preschool Changed my Views

What I used to view as something that was “nice” and in many ways unnecessary, I now strongly believe is a necessity to long-term success. I know a lot of parents (here come the angry comments!) who say that their kids don’t need a pre-K program because they are home with them and can help them with learning activities to prepare them for school. Besides, these parents say, kids are busy enough when REAL school kicks in. They should have that final year of childhood.

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With all due respect, a parent simply can’t teach the things a trained childhood development expert can and socialization is a big part of the preparation needed for Kindergarten. That being said, in the middle and high class homes where one parent is able to do some learning activities with their children, the long-term positive effects of pre-K are not as noticeable. Those kids “catch up” to pre-K peers quickly when they do enter the classroom scene. Unfortunately, that group of children is in the minority.

And did I mention those long days of Kindergarten? I remember going a half day, and taking a nap while I was there. Those days are gone now, like it or not, and our Kindergartners are expected to be ready for a long school day when they arrive on campus. Even a short universal preschool program helps get kids prepared to that end, at least a little bit.

Universal Preschool at its Best: Voluntary and Play-Based

In addition, children enjoy learning and thankfully most universal preschool programs emphasize the fun side of the education process and give kids plenty of creative play time. Psychological experts believe that in most cases, kids are ready for a structured school setting by the age of 4.

The key to the Florida VPK program is that it is voluntary. The state does not mandate it but parents can take advantage of the free services if and when they want. In Florida, VPK is paid by the state for one school year and the child must be 4 years old. If parents decide to keep a child in VPK for a second year, and delay a Kindergarten start, they are responsible for the costs.

We just happened to pick a VPK program that was administered in conjunction with a public school — but in Florida, parents can pick any accredited VPK program at a church, private school or daycare that they desire. What other time in a child’s school career can a parent choose exactly where to send him or her, and not have to pay a cent?

The Future of Universal Preschool

Right now more than a dozen states have universal pre-K programs in place, all voluntary, and many others are in the beginning stages of implementing them. A DLC Models Initiatives report found that high-quality preschool programs run with public investments had the potential to return the cost 7 to 1 back to the state in the long run.

A Georgetown University study found that the cognitive and language assessment scores for children who attended universal pre-K programs (especially those of Hispanic or African American descent) were higher by an average of 17 and 54 (!!) percent, respectively.

Looking at a program in Chicago, the National Institutes of Health reported that for every dollar spent on universal pre-K initiatives, $11 were returned to the state over the child’s lifetime. Pre-K programs have been linked to lower dropout, teenage pregnancy and even prison rates.

Research shows that the first five years of life are the most critical when it comes to our lifelong knowledge base — yet we delay school until the age of 5 (or later). I’m not advocating for children to start “school” as infants — much of early childhood learning is environmental, and should be. I do think that extending the public education system from K-12 to P-12 should happen though, in every state, even if it’s on a voluntary level.

Universal Preschool is Actually Decades Old

President Obama has been pretty outspoken when it comes to his support for universal preschool programs, pledging federal dollars to provide the services to children whose families are 200 percent below the poverty line. To be fair, though, his idea is nothing new. Universal pre-K programs have been popping up in states like Oklahoma and Georgia since the early 2000s.

I say this because it seems that some people oppose the idea of universal pre-K because they associate it with Obama, or other politicians. In truth, it is an issue that extends well beyond any political walls. It is an issue that starts with this generation of parents and will impact the next generation of adults.

Why Free Universal Preschool is Needed

I’d like to say that my husband and I would have paid for the universal preschool program my kids attended it cost money, but my guess is that we would have bypassed it instead. That pains me to say, because I cherish the time my kids spent and knowledge that they gained in that program — but money talks, especially in growing families. That statement is truer still in families below the poverty line, or teetering on the edge of it. Should the kids from families that can afford pre-K be the only ones to reap the benefits? How much will society strengthen, for everyone, if every kid is offered that extra year of learning?

Did your kids participate in universal preschool? Would they if it was an option in your state?


Category: Education

Tags: Katie