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Pre-school for poor kids will pay dividends

By JEFFREY VILLAR

Publication: The Day

Published February 09. 2014 4:00AM

Apart from my experience as a teacher, principal and superintendent, my experience as a father tells me that we need to fund more high-quality preschool slots for low-income children if we want to narrow Connecticut's achievement gap.

When I look at my two-year-old son, I see a kid who has the necessary foundation for a successful schooling experience. He lives in a new, middle-class home; he has two parents, who have advanced degrees and are educators; he has five loving older siblings to serve as cheerleaders and role models; he's surrounded by books and language; he knows his colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. His vocabulary is growing daily; and he is on track to develop a conservatively estimated vocabulary of more than 20,000 words prior to enrolling in kindergarten.

Now, compare my son's experience with that of a child born to a single mother who is struggling to make ends meet. That child is born with the very same learning capacity as my son, but is more likely to enter kindergarten significantly behind him academically. Since the 1980s, we've known that children of professionals are exposed to approximately 1,500 more words per hour than kids who grow up in poverty. That's a gap of more than 32 millions words by the time they're four years old. This is a serious problem.

It's why we need to fund additional high-quality preschool slots for low-income kids. If we believe that education is the great equalizer in this land of opportunity, then we need to do a better job of providing poor kids with early experiences and remediation when they are behind. In fact, when children from low-income families attend preschool, they're 10 percent less likely to need substantial supports when they enter kindergarten.

Last session, the state funded 1,000 slots for school readiness programs and the 2012 legislation called for the development of a quality rating system to ensure that early childhood programs are worthwhile. But we need 6,500 additional preschool slots if all low-income children are to have access, and the quality rating system has yet to be developed. In the meantime, 30 percent of kindergarteners in urban and low-income districts arrive at school never having gone to preschool. We are failing them.

We have a moral responsibility to do a better job for the children who have been born into poverty and deserve the opportunity to break out of that cycle.

Regardless of where individuals live or go to school, a highly educated population will improve the quality of living for all Connecticut citizens.

No matter their background, every child is innately capable of learning. We just need to give them a chance. After all, opportunity - the chance to pull yourself by your bootstraps - is what America is all about.

This legislative session, Connecticut lawmakers should commit to providing preschool experiences to all low-income students.

Jeffrey Villar is the executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Connecticut Council for Education Reform.

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