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Heidi Crumrine: With limited funding for early intervention services, full-day kindergarten is even more important



Monitor columnist
Thursday, April 26, 2018

The best start for our children is an equitable one.

The first day of kindergarten is a monumental moment – a turning point for both parent and child. There is a sense of excitement, but it is also bittersweet. Despite the fact that they are 5 and 6 years old, it feels like the big leagues. Gone is our baby and that high school graduation suddenly feels close.

When I took my oldest daughter to her first day of kindergarten, we were both a mix of emotions. I didn’t yet have deep connections to her elementary school and didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t overly concerned and felt like she was prepared because we always read to her, encouraged creative play, and she had attended a high-quality preschool. She knew the routines of a school day – to sit at circle time, to wait her turn, to respect her teacher.

Taking my middle daughter was a slightly different experience. When I bent down to give her a hug, she somehow managed to climb onto my back and cling to my neck. I couldn’t get her off me, so I carried her into the classroom and ended up joining the morning circle for a few minutes. I, of course, worried about her for the rest of the day, but I was also excited for her and knew that she was ready.

As a high school teacher myself, I am somewhat removed from the youngest learners in our school system. I didn’t fully appreciate the students’ wide range of preparedness in a kindergarten classroom. I was, naïvely, surprised to notice a few children who couldn’t form letters to attempt to write their own names. When I sat in that first morning circle with my middle daughter, I saw a few children who were confused about what to do and it was clear that they probably had never been in a group environment with children their own age.

My reaction was not one of harsh judgment, but one of concern. It was an aha moment. I thought of my own students who have high levels of frustration in school and saw how that could have started in their younger years simply because they came to school without the skills needed to begin learning. We are not talking about overly academic expectations for our young children – we are talking about children coming to school with an understanding that books are to be listened to, that there are other children in the room who have needs that might be met ahead of your own, and that you need to attend to the age-appropriate routines and expectations of the classroom. A common knee-jerk reaction is to blame their parents. It is more likely that these parents are doing the best they can with what they have. All parents want the best for their children.

Why is this so important? Because children who come to kindergarten without the social and emotional skills they need are behind before they even start. Imagine how frustrating that must feel for a young child.

In New Hampshire, there are two federally funded programs that aim to help the youngest members of our state: Early Head Start, which serves low-income children under age 3, and Head Start, which serves low-income children between the ages of 3 and 5. There are currently 385 funded Early Head Start (EHS) seats and 1,255 funded Head Start (HS) seats. Both of these services provide support for children and their families during those formative years.

What will these services mean for those children? A lot. According to the Early Learning Study at Harvard, they will reduce any vocabulary deficits they may have by 38 percent, they will be 31 percent less likely to repeat a grade in school and they will be 19 percent less likely to smoke as adults. Furthermore, they enter kindergarten ready to learn and are more likely to graduate from high school. According to research conducted by James Heckman from the University of Chicago, students who received high-quality early learning programs resulted in a 13 percent return per child per year because of improved outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime. Looking at these statistics, it is clear why Congress should fully fund these programs, and why we should support them in that endeavor.

Yet, here is the problem: Last year, those 385 EHS seats served only 11 percent of eligible children; the 1,255 HS seats served only 38 percent of eligible children. This means that the majority of young children from low-income households in our state do not have access to the services they need. This means that by that first day of kindergarten, the discrepancy of preparedness has become a case of the haves and have-nots. Children, through no fault of their own, are ill-prepared to start the same journey as their peers, simply because of family circumstances. This is a textbook case of inequity.

Which brings me back to kindergarten. If city, state or federal funding is not enough to cover these early intervention services, then it becomes even more imperative that we support full-day kindergarten. Full-day kindergarten programs result in improvements in long-term academic achievement, especially for low-income students and English-language learners – the same populations of students who are often eligible for early intervention programs.

In a few shorts months, I will bring my last baby to kindergarten. I will be nostalgic about this parenting milestone, but I will be mostly excited for her. I will also be grateful that, thanks to newly implemented full-day kindergarten in Concord, all of the children in her class will have a better start on their education journeys, regardless of where they started out in life. What a wonderful gift for those children from the city of Concord.

(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)