WASHINGTON – Montgomery County has one of the premier pre-kindergarten programs in the country, and still some children enter kindergarten unprepared because the programs aren’t mandatory and are underfunded.
That was the message educators, including Montgomery County Superintendant Jerry Weast and 2006 Teacher of the Year Kim Oliver of Silver Spring, brought to Capitol Hill Wednesday at the request of Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Kit Bond, R-Mo.
Oliver, 31, told a story about a student she taught a few years ago at Broad Acres Elementary. “Kathryn” came to kindergarten unable to recognize her own name written on her cubby, or to sing the ABC song with the rest of her class. The girl couldn’t talk about her family during share time because her English skills were limited.
After trying so hard to catch up, Kathryn finally lost motivation to learn.
“I would give her a task, give her something to work on, and she would say, ‘No, Miss Oliver, you do it,'” Oliver said. “And that made me so sad — so sad because on the first day of kindergarten, Kathryn was already at a disadvantage. She was not ready to learn.”
Kathryn is typical of too many students, Oliver said.
“There are Kathryns sitting in our kindergarten classes all across the country who are not ready to learn.”
This, she said, is why pre-kindergarten programs are so important – so that schools can ensure that every child has an opportunity to learn.
Students learn basic social and behavior skills in pre-kindergarten that they need to use throughout their educational career, Oliver said.
“Teachers of other grade levels take for granted what kids learn in pre-K,” she said. “My students who go to pre-K, they come to school, they know how to interact with their peers, they know school behaviors, which we think all students know, but you spend on a moment in kindergarten on that first week of school and you’ll notice that they don’t.”
For a student to be successful, learning must start early, Weast said.
To attack low graduation and college attendance rates, Weast decided he had to get Montgomery County children to start school early.
“We’ve figured out the standard,” he said. “We can’t get it done in high school. Middle schools said they weren’t prepared. We went back to elementary and we found out that reading, math and everything was a problem. … We had to put in a curriculum.”
Weast started a pre-kindergarten program in 1999 that has benefitted the students in his county.
“Our children are better prepared because of our pre-K,” he said.
The program has helped raise the number of kindergarteners who can read to 93 percent, Weast said, and 63 percent of those students are expected to consistently perform above grade level.
The first class to go through the pre-kindergarten program is in eighth grade, and 77 percent of those students are taking algebra this year, which is a year before the average student takes the course.
Weast said the pre-kindergarten programs have an impact outside of the schools.
“These things work,” he said. “They work for your community: Our housing values have kept up, our employment base has kept up, and we’ve gone from a majority-white system to a majority-minority.”
To spread that success beyond Montgomery County, Weast said, the federal government must provide funding for pre-kindergarten programs.
Clinton and Bond plan to reintroduce the Ready to Learn Act next year. The bill will expand access to voluntary pre-kindergarten programs by providing funds to the states that support them.
“It works,” Weast said. “You’ve got to be well-researched, well-planned, well-executed, and you’ve got to have a quality teacher in every classroom and get ready to differentiate and do what it takes to get a standard that leads somewhere.”