With budgets tight, Ohio, Kentucky lag.

The children buzzing about Ethel M. Taylor Academy’s preschool class in Millvale appeared to be playing.

Three youngsters scooped candy sprinkles into empty liter soda bottles for make-believe Kool-Aid. They were really learning to measure and estimate. Nearby, two boys shared cloth dolls and a stuffed horse; they were actually practicing “friendship words.” And a girl and boy stacked colored shapes onto various sized circles; they were solving problems.

“They are learning how to converse and share – critical thinking,” said Deborah Bradshaw, Cincinnati Public Schools’ early childhood director, observing the class of 3- and 4-year-olds.

“They’re getting something from every activity,” said teacher Laura Coyne.

For a generation, national education reforms designed to prepare more students for college have pushed first-grade classroom lessons into kindergarten and kindergarten lessons to preschool. Kids are now expected to learn numbers, colors and the beginnings of how to read before they start kindergarten.

Preschool is the new kindergarten. It is not mandatory, though, and most parents who choose it have to pay for it.

State and federal early-learning programs help pay for preschool for about half of the nation’s impoverished 4-year-olds and fewer of its low-income 3-year-olds. Advocates say that has to change.

The only real game-changer in terms of reforming education and improving outcomes for students is early learning and development – getting every kid ready for school,” said Greg Landsman, executive director of Cincinnati-based The Strive Partnership, a regional resource for groups supporting education.

“The science and the data are too compelling to ignore: 90 percent of the brain is fully formed by the time kids enter kindergarten. If we’re trying to improve outcomes for children, we have to become much more serious about their first five years of life.”

Studies also have concluded students who had preschool were more likely to graduate from high school, attend and finish college, and have productive careers. Conversely, students who had no preschool were more likely to drop out, be poor and, at least one study showed, become involved in crime.

Nationally, about half the nation’s 3-year-olds and three-fourths of its 4-year-olds attend preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Brunswick, N.J.

A kindergartner from a low-income family who has no preschool often starts about 18 months behind his or her peers, said Steve Barnett, director of the institute. “That gap you see walking into the kindergarten door you will see again when they take their third-grade tests,” he said.

Preschool costs rival tuition at four-year college

It can be expensive to close that gap.

In Southwest Ohio (Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Warren counties), full-time year-round preschool costs $8,008 to $9,152 a year. In Northern Kentucky (Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties), it runs between $7,384 and $7,904. By comparison, a year’s tuition at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College costs about $5,000; at the University of Cincinnati, it’s about $10,000.

In the past decade, Ohio and Kentucky joined a majority of states in dramatically increasing what they spend on early learning. The recession and state budget cuts, however, slashed early learning spending in both states since.

About 75 percent of Ohio’s “high-need” children start kindergarten unprepared, state education officials said. That includes students with disabilities and students from low-income homes or homes where English is a second language.

Nearly 138,600 Ohio children ages 3-5 live in low-income families. Yet a complex patchwork of state, federal and local funding sources pays for preschool for at least 51,700 of them – 37 percent, state officials estimate. (Ohio also pays for 30,000 preschoolers in childcare, but it’s unclear how many of them are attending preschool classes.)

The rest of the “high-need” kids whose parents can’t afford preschool lag behind their peers, likely in a daycare or at a family home setting, but not getting preparing for kindergarten, Landsman said.

Ohio, like half the other states, requires public school kindergartners to take a readiness test within their first several weeks of school. The Kindergarten Readiness Assessment-Literacy is meant to measure skills that may lead to literacy; it is not meant to exclude any child from kindergarten.

Since 2005, when Ohio started the KRA-L, a consistent 4-point gap in scores has persisted between children from low-income families and other children. Similar score gaps appear for other disadvantaged children.

In Southwest Ohio, children who attended preschool averaged a 21.2 kindergarten readiness score last year (maximum score is 29), compared to 17.5 points for children who had no preschool. A score of 19 is considered kindergarten-ready, Landsman said.

Ohio has fallen behind many states in closing the preschool gap, Barnett said. Not only has Ohio slashed public funds for some preschool programs for financially struggling families since 2008, it continues to allow larger-than-recommended preschool classes, led by instructors who usually have no college degrees, he said.

Barnett also criticized Ohio’s voluntary quality standards, which are optional for most preschools. He said states with quality preschool programs don’t leave annual quality assessments up to the providers.

State officials disagree, saying that his criticism ignores the fact that many children attend preschools that are linked to state agencies or school districts – both of which have their own tough, mandatory standards – and that Head Start also has its own national quality standards and curricula that affiliated preschools must meet.

According to 4C for Children, a nonprofit that keeps databases on preschools in Ohio and Northern Kentucky, about 30 percent of the 879 early learning programs in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are highly rated under Ohio’s or Kentucky’s voluntary quality system.

Ohio is poised to toughen its standards, state officials said. In December, Ohio and eight other states won a total of $500 million in federal Race to the Top Early Learning grants. Ohio received the largest award in the competition, $70 million. Ohio’s application promised the state would:

Get 37,500 more high-need youngsters into preschools.

Mandate that all preschools receiving public funds adhere to quality standards, which include everything from staff credentials to the number of students in each class.

Develop a more complete kindergarten readiness test, partnering with Maryland.

Get more preschool staff to seek college degrees and training; increase scholarships.

Increase reimbursements to state-funded providers and up incentives for private preschools to adopt quality standards and accept more disadvantaged children.

Ohio, Kentucky invest hundreds of millions

Ohio spends about $290.7 million now on things such as early childhood, special education for preschoolers, and publicly funded childcare. Headstart, funded by the federal government, adds another $240 million.

Kentucky, which competed for the early learning Race to the Top grant and failed, cut its early childhood budget to $71 million this year from $75 million in 2010, said Lisa Gross, education department spokeswoman.

The state serves about 25,000 preschoolers in state-funded programs – about a quarter of its preschoolers. The state is planning a variety of ways to expand services to preschoolers, Gross said, including by increasing home visits to parents of small children.

Kentucky, for instance, is developing a statewide kindergarten readiness test – five years behind Ohio’s mandate – that may be ready as early as this fall, she said. The plan is to report kindergarten data by districts.

The federal government launched Head Start, the massive program that pays for preschool for low-income families, in 1965. Today a family of four can earn up to $22,350 a year and get preschool paid in full, or it can earn up to $45,852 and get help paying part of the cost.

Barnett said just six states – Oklahoma, Florida, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Georgia – pay for most of their preschoolers. Others planned to, until the recession hit in 2008.

Since 2009, Ohio has eliminated some programs and tightened eligibility for others. For instance, Ohio used to help pay child care costs for a working family of three with an income of up to nearly $28,000 a year. Today, that same family is not eligible if it earns more than $23,000.

Both Ohio and Kentucky are seeking business leaders’ input in state task forces on early learning. Ohio Gov. John Kasich also created an Early Education and Development Officer to “break down silos” in various state agencies that administer early learning initiatives.

Local groups aren’t waiting for the state reforms. They’re developing their own plans.

The United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the Strive Partnership, Success by 6 and other community groups are seeking private donor partners to expand access to preschool and to grow an existing program that sends early childhood educators into homes. These educators weekly give parents games, books and “homework” they can do with their preschoolers to prepare them for kindergarten.

In addition, the community groups are planning a “preschool promise” campaign, to raise private donations to help parents afford preschool. Such a promise marks a shift in local priorities.

“Teach Your Child to Count to 10″ – ChildUp Early Learning Game Cards

By Denise Smith Amos.

Source: Cincinnati.com – http://goo.gl/08gse