There is nothing more frustrating to a parent than feeling like your child doesn’t have access to the same advantages other children have. The Declaration of Independence may hold that all people are created equal, but very clearly all ZIP Codes are not. Access to health care, child care and even food varies significantly depending on where you live.
There is one area, however, where Denver has managed to level the playing field – early childhood education.
In 2006, the city’s voters approved a dedicated sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program. The program offers tuition credits to all families residing within the City and County of Denver to ensure that their four-year-olds can participate in a quality early childhood program in the year before kindergarten.
The amount of credits a family receives is based on the family’s income, the quality rating of the preschool the child attends, and the length of day they attend.
As the CEO of the Denver Preschool Program and a parent of a child who benefited enormously from the program, we have seen first-hand the difference that preschool makes for our city’s students. In fact, Jessica’s daughter Jaylah, one of our program participants, is a tremendous example of the power of tuition credits to make preschool available to all Denver 4-year-olds.
When Jaylah enrolled in a preschool program, staff members quickly recognized that she wasn’t speaking at a level considered typical for her age. Her family wasn’t in a position financially to pay for a specialist to work with her, but the speech tutor position was covered by funds from the Denver Preschool Program.
Jaylah thrived in her preschool experience – teachers enjoyed having her in their classes and she was excited to go to school every day. She participated in the interactive play area and always gravitated to the play cooking area, where she would make imaginary meals for her friends. After a year of hard work, Jaylah was speaking normally for her age.
Jaylah easily could have slipped through the cracks and found herself behind when she was enrolled in kindergarten or first grade. The likely impact would have been for her to fall behind her peers, a potentially vicious cycle that leads far too often to low grades, disciplinary actions and ultimately kids dropping out.
Instead, she thrived in school, bringing home strong grades. Today, Jaylah is a college freshman who is working to make her dream of becoming a chef and restaurant owner a reality.
From an academic perspective, we know that preschool creates a strong foundation that benefits our children for the rest of their academic lives. Earlier this year, a study by researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of Denver, the University of Colorado Denver and Denver Preschool Program that appeared in the academic journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly followed the academic results of 73,000 Denver students – 54% of whom attended preschool with the support of the Denver Preschool Program.
The results were stunning.
First, children supported by the program are more likely to read at grade level. Scores for state-required reading tests showed that children who received support scored between 11 and 15 percentage points higher than their non-program peers. That means preschool program participants were more likely to read at grade level, which establishes a foundation of success that applies to many other subjects.
Second, children who attend preschool with the support of the Denver Preschool Program are less likely to be held back than their non-program peers. In fact, program participants are about half as likely as their non-program peers to be required to repeat a grade. This is very important because research shows that children who are held back experience more negative impact to their social and emotional development. It also increases the likelihood that they will drop out of high school.
And third, children who are supported by the Denver Preschool Program are one-third less likely to be chronically absent from kindergarten than their non-program peers. Reducing chronic absences in kindergarten is critically important because chronic absences in kindergarteners are correlated with a lower likelihood of reading at grade level in third grade.
As educators and parents, we are always looking for every advantage that we can give our children to better prepare them to become happier and more engaged students and more productive adults. It is clear that giving all kids access to a preschool education is a simple step that yields an incredible return on the investment.
Elsa Holguin, of Lakewood, is CEO of the Denver Preschool Program. Jessica Short, of Denver, is the parent of three children.
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