The Intelligencer: Give every child a good start for learning
January 9, 2018

When I welcome kindergartners on the first day of school, I don’t see them only as little ones eager to learn. I also picture them 13 years later, attired in cap and gown, proudly accepting their hard-earned and well-deserved high school diplomas.

However, I worry that the road ahead is rocky for some of our most vulnerable children. Through no fault of their own, they have not been exposed to the tools they need to learn, and that’s why I’m speaking up for high-quality prekindergarten that prepares all children for academics even before they enter school.

For two decades, Pennsylvania leaders in government, business, law enforcement and the military have supported public investments in high-quality pre-K. Now, elementary school principals have joined the chorus. In a 2017 survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Principals Association in conjunction with the Pre-K for PA Campaign, nearly 99 percent of us agreed that publicly funded, high-quality pre-K is an important tool in preparing at-risk children for kindergarten.

This nearly unanimous show of support is remarkable but hardly surprising. As a principal, I see the difference that early learning makes. Children who have had an opportunity to attend high-quality pre-K come ready for school. They already know the basics of reading, mathematics, getting along with others, building friendships and sharing.

Unfortunately, some children who do not attend high-quality pre-K programs do not have the readiness skills needed to prepare them for standards-based curriculum instruction. Their teachers, then, are required to spend more time on classroom management and social skills rather than engaging them in meaningful learning experiences.

Many children who have not been exposed to a high-quality pre-K are at a greater risk of doing poorly in school, due to adverse circumstances. These are the students my kindergarten teachers and I lose sleep over. We strive to bring them to the same developmental and academic playing field as their classmates; but for many, time is not on their side.

High-quality pre-K helps close the learning gaps. In the years from birth to age 5, when 90 percent of brain development occurs, scientifically proven, carefully crafted enrichment prompts strong growth in the brain’s neurological pathways. Without those rich learning opportunities, the once-in-a-lifetime chance for kindergarten readiness is lost.

The evidence I see in the classroom every day validates years of research findings. Children who attend high-quality pre-K are much more likely to demonstrate age-appropriate behaviors. They grasp basic numeracy concepts and show reading readiness. They are much less likely to be retained in a grade, require remediation or receive special education services. As time goes on, they are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to graduate and pursue a postgraduate degree.

Unfortunately, too few children get to experience high-quality pre-K. Statewide, 64 percent of eligible preschool-age children miss this opportunity, and in Bucks County, it’s even worse at 76 percent. In my school district, Centennial, 92 percent of local children don’t enjoy the school-readiness benefits of publicly funded, high-quality prekindergarten.

Pennsylvania needs to do more. Building off recent growth in state funding, our commonwealth should invest another $315 million by 2022. This investment would make publicly funded, high-quality pre-K available to every eligible child and help improve affordability for middle-class parents.

I believe in the promise of every kindergartner, but it saddens me to think that some have a late start on the journey to graduation day. With high-quality pre-K, every child in Pennsylvania starts a lifetime of learning, preparing to contribute to the community and pursue their dreams.

Shawanna James-Coles is principal of Davis Elementary in Centennial School District.