The preschool priority
Closing the achievement gap one tiny footstep at a time
When the bell rings on a warm August morning (just 10 weeks from now) the kindergarten doors will swing open to a more well-prepared group of students than ever before in Sonoma.
These children will run in with an expectant and optimistic attitude. Welcome back. They know where the backpacks go. They know it will be circle time. They know about letters and numbers and books and simple rules about raising hands. They are preschool graduates.
They, and their parents, have had at least one full year of engaging in a school environment because of a successful, newly expanded preschool program offered at El Verano Elementary School.
There will be another group of students, holding tight to mom or dad’s hand, wondering what is this big room? Why do I have to stay here? It’s terrifying, and it will take weeks or even months to adjust. These students have had no preschool exposure and, sadly, they are behind their peers before their school career has officially begun.
During the early years, children develop linguistic, cognitive, social and emotional building blocks for later development. It is a window and opportunity to support children’s early learning and growth.
A recent Rand Corporation study found that participation in high quality preschool programs produced gains in school readiness and subsequent education performance. The Rand study showed that well-designed preschool programs serving children one or two years before kindergarten entry can improve measures of school readiness and raise performance on academic achievement tests in the early elementary grades.
This is proving true in Sonoma. Fifty-three percent of students with preschool are passing their English benchmarks tests in kindergarten, even if they enter as English-language learners. Sadly, more than 80 percent of students without preschool experience are failing those same benchmark tests.
Preschool can also generate sustained effects on academic achievement into the middle-school years, and produce other education gains such as reduced special-education use and grade repetition, plus higher rates of high school graduation.
At a recent gathering of local educators, Sonoma Valley High School Principal Dino Battaglini identified preschool as a crucial priority, even though these littlest students won’t be walking through his hallways for nearly a decade. “We have to level the playing field for all students,” he insisted, “Starting school without the basic preschool skills is hard to overcome and it increases the chance of students struggling in high school when the stakes are much higher.”
Preschool is also important because it involves parents early in school communities. They are exposed to the ways that families can support their children’s learning, how to communicate with teachers, participate in the curriculum, and understand the learning goals for their child.
The El Verano preschool opened in 2008-09, with one morning session of 24 students. Back then, a mere 30 percent of students were coming to kindergarten with preschool experience. Last year, the preschool program welcomed 22 more students to an afternoon session, thanks to generous community donations from the Ernest Bates Foundation and the Vadasz Family Foundation. Now, 87 percent of El Verano kindergartners will arrive this fall with preschool know-how.
The Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and the Sonoma Valley Unified School District are working together on further expanding preschool for local families. Despite the success of the expanded program at El Verano School, nearly half of students district-wide do not attend preschool prior to kindergarten.
We have to do more to achieve the district’s goal of “Preschool for All.”
It will require additional community investment in our youngest students.
Preschool is an unattainable expense for many local families. The average fees for a local private preschool are $500 a month, and extra childcare time can bump the cost to as much as $1,000 a month. The combination of school district funds and private donations made the El Verano program possible. The early results are encouraging for the students as a whole as well as their families.
Last month, as the 46 El Verano preschoolers took part in an official graduation ceremony held at Altimira Middle School, the auditorium was packed. The students sat calmly on the stage and waited their turn to walk up and receive a mini-diploma.
One mom watched in wonder, saying, “I can’t believe my eyes! My boy started preschool as a baby, and now he really is a student!”