Filling in the blanks: Pre-K is one investment the city cannot afford to pass on

Filling in the blanks: Pre-K is one investment the city cannot afford to pass on
School board chairwoman Karen Graf

By Karen Graf

All of the research shows that children who have had preschool experience enter kindergarten better prepared than those who do not. The research also shows they go on to do better academically. We know preschool is essential. But this research makes preschool even more crucial as a way to create a foundation for future academic success.

This is why it is imperative to act now on the joint goals of the city, Alexandria City Public Schools and other early education providers to make preschool available to four-year olds in the city. As we continue working with our current partners, ACPS has suggested opening centralized locations for preschool in 2018 and 2020.

With an investment up front, our city can tackle these goals within the next few years. Children, who can struggle in school in part because of issues like poverty or language barriers, gain significant benefits from quality preschool programs.

When unprepared children begin school behind, they tend to fall further and further behind. This places a burden on ACPS and our city resources before we even get that child through the first few years of elementary school. It can also leave the child without a love of learning as they come to view themselves as behind their peers.

Children grow socially and emotionally through interactions with peers — playing together and learning how to share. Preschoolers sharpen their thinking and attention skills when in a stimulating environment. Preschoolers start to learn how to function in the school setting, which can reduce or eliminate problem behaviors early on.

Preschool can also be a resource for preschoolers that need wellness services. Research shows that early education can reduce special education placement by identifying developmental issues at a younger age and providing the opportunity for early intervention.

The long-term positive academic results and cost savings of preschool are indisputable. Strong preschool programs increase lifelong earning potential and help students achieve better academic outcomes. But more, preschool contributes to lowering dropout rates once that student reaches high school.

Research shows that students deemed to be from vulnerable populations who went to preschool have lower rates of teen pregnancy, higher earnings once they graduate, are more likely to hold a job, and have a lower probability of committing crimes.

The sooner that ACPS can work with parents and the students to help them be ready to learn, the better opportunity ACPS has to advance them academically throughout their years in school. This is about investing at the beginning to ensure a bright and fiscally sound future for all students.

ACPS has been working collaboratively with the city’s early care and education work group, made up of stakeholders across Alexandria, to advance quality preschool instruction and align early care experiences in the city. This effort unites early education goals from ACPS 2020, the Children and Youth Master Plan and the common agenda.

This is a critical time for ACPS. This is the first year that the student population will exceed the number of seats we have in the district. The consolidation of preschools would help make space in the city’s elementary schools by freeing more than 30 classrooms, which could translate to more than 750 students. This is essentially another elementary school. Additionally, there would be new opportunities to partner with providers and potentially use all of the available state preschool funding — currently our city only accesses some of it due to space constraints.

The only thing in dispute at this time is the investment. If we offer quality preschool options, knowing that preschool education works, then Alexandria could be a leader in early education in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But if the compelling research does not move you, then the future savings should. This is one investment the city cannot pass on.

The writer is the chairwoman of the Alexandria City School Board.