Evergreen Montessori House

Preschool Gap Draws Concern

Playing with blocks is never just playing with blocks in the Evergreen Montessori House. In one corner of the open classroom, a child stacks pink cubes, one on top of the other, building a tower that is surprisingly sturdy for its height.

He thinks they're blocks, but they're actually cubes, says Gargi Das, the Dracut preschool's director. And when the child sees those cubes again when he is entrenched in kindergarten or first or second grade, he'll remember. "These all come back," she says as she points out the methods for learning numbers and letters, the triangles that form squares, and the squares that form rectangles. " In your early childhood education, if the concepts are clear, it always comes back," Das said.

The classroom at the Montessori school is an organized jumble of learning. A computer stands in one corner, a piano against the wall. Gymnastics and music are a part of the curriculum here, just like ABCs and 123s. Picture of ancient kings and gods stare down on the children, remnants of a just-completed chapter on ancient mythology. Composers watch form the other corner, Chopin and Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart casting steely glances on the classroom. The stimulation is enough to send an adult into information overload. But for Das's audience, the 3- to 6- year-old set, the mixture is perfect. " Make it interesting. That's what it's all about," she said, " At the age of 3, the child's mind is like a sponge."

A child's early development wasn't always perceived that way. The psychologist and philosopher William James once called an infant's word a "buzzing confusion," filled with overwhelming stimuli that can't be processed. Now scientists believe infants process a great deal of information in their first months of life, and the time from birth to age 3 is seen as a critical period in a child's development.

Now scientists generally agree that learning starts early, and society, as a result, has placed more emphasis on early childhood education. " parents have always been aware of the crucial development taking place in a child's early years, and anyone teaching young children has seen it too," said Alan Simpson, spokesman for the national Association for the Education pf Young Children based in Washington, D.C. "What the research has done is really confirmed that basic understanding and given us more evidence of how important these early childhood experiences are in laying the foundation for a growing child."

On study of parent-child centers serving low-income families in Chicago showed that children who completed one or two years at a high quality preschool had a higher rate of high school completion, more years of completed education, and lower rates of juvenile arrest, violent arrest and school dropouts.

Another 1999 research paper, " Early Learning, Later Success: the Abecedarian Study," showed that children who received early intervention were more likely, at age 21, to score higher on IQ, reading and math tests, be enrolled in or graduated from a four-year college, delay parenthood and be gainfully employed. And in the short term, early childhood education can prepare a child for those first years of school. Children form low-income families, who may not have the experience in the home that are beneficial to early learning but attend a high quality preschool, are more likely to be an equal footing with their peers. Experts say high-quality preschools can put all children on an equal academic playing field. " A lot of the cognitive and language development starts from day one," said Karen Tewhey, Lowell's early childhood coordinator." They are precursors on how well a child will be academically when they go to school." But those experiences that help a child grow and develop in the early years don't have to come from preschools alone. A child who attends no school before kindergarten, but is read to by parents or goes on educational field trips with caregivers, can be just as prepared for kindergarten as a child who attends preschool regularly.

The problem lies with the socioeconomic gap between families. Children from lower-income families are more likely to live in homes that don't have books or hear a language other than English spoken every day, which becomes a problem when they attend classes where English is the dominant language. The children whose families have fewer means are usually the ones who need to attend preschool the most. "It's a combination of what you get at home and in the early learning programs," Simpson said. "There programs have their greatest benefit for low-income children. Look back at different Head Start studies - it makes less of a difference in a family where there's a lot of exposure to new words and a lot of learning experiences in the home." In Lowell, city officials have tried to make preschool education available to all children. The Family Literacy Center, Funded through a grant from the state's Community Partnerships for Children (CPC), serves as a clearinghouse for information on preschools to parents and is the umbrella organization for all early childhood education in the city. The city offers preschool options, from public schools to a Head Start program, as well as Catholic initiatives and private preschools. The Family Literacy Center ensures that all 4-year-olds receive some kind of early childhood education. For those who have not had any schooling before kindergarten, they provide a summer program to bring the students up to speed.

Last year, 150 to 200 children took part in the summer program. "We support kids in the city being in programs at four years old," Tewhey said. " We think a 4-year-old program is a critical support for kids in families. It gets them ready for kindergarten and gives the parents expectations." But not all preschools are created equal. While the city is putting an emphasis on early childhood education, the quality of the education a child receives makes a large difference. High-quality education results in students well -prepared for school. Low-quality preschool could have damaging effects. "Good early childhood is an asset to a child's development and bad early childhood can be a real danger," Tewhey said. The differences between good and bad preschool can be hard to distinguish. NAEYC publishes a 300-page book listing accreditation standards for preschools and child care facilities. The basics revolve around the health and safety of children. But NAEYC looks for indications of valuable educational experiences: small teacher-to-student ratios quality training of teachers and staff, and low turnover rates for staff. Such standards cost money. And programs that provide them can be more expensive than those that don't.

In Massachusetts, the average cost of early education to families, including both full-and part-time services, is $108.15 per week, according to a November report from the Governor's Commission on School Readiness. As of July 1, 2002, 17,530 children were waiting for subsidized care statewide. In most states, child care is more expensive than tuition, room and board at a public university. "As a society, we recognize that higher education brings a value to us all, so higher education is subsidized, the government pays into it and corporations pay into it," Simpson said "We all know we benefit from a well-educated society. What we also need is to recognize that starts before kindergarten." For lower-income families programs like Head Start and public preschools provide the answer. In Lowell, every child can attend some form of preschool, according to Community Teamwork Inc.'s James Houlares. "We used to have a larger waiting list," said Houlares, director of the division of child and family services. " There's lots more funding for preschool education, public school preschools as well as community partnerships."

CTI serves children in their Head Start Program, as well as at two full-time, year-round child care centers and at Early Head Start, a program for infants and toddlers. More than 500 children in the program live below the poverty line and receive their education through federal Head Start dollars. The CTI programs encourage a child's development in all areas - social, cognitive, emotional and physical. Head Start services include adult education and computer training for parents, as well as providing for the health, special needs and mental health of children. "We want to make sure all children have this wonderful opportunity to live up to their potential," Houlares said.

Walk into CUT'S Head Start site on Phoenix Avenue in the morning hours and you are surrounded by children - kids reading stories, learning songs, talking with teachers setting the tables, serving themselves lunch, pouring their own milk. May be they'd be playing outside (developing large motor skills) or discussing the weather with an adult (developing vocabulary and language skills). The space is filled with activity, with parents, adults staff and kids swirling together in their daily routines. Children run into this vortex of activities in September and come out in June stronger, healthier, and ready to learn, according to Houlares. "Working with the child and the family in those early years is extremely important. If we can identify issues and concerns and work on them, we can send children to school ready to learn," Houlares said. "Preschools today are just a wealth of opportunity in learning."

Susan McMahon, Lowell Sun