Today, Richmond Public Schools opens registration for 3 & 4 year old preschool through its Head Start and Virginia Preschool Initiative Programs. The tagline, “Preschool is Real School,” addresses the ambivalence some adults feel toward early childhood education.
Last fall, a Vanderbilt study caused controversy when it revealed that the gains made by a group of Tennessee Head Start students had seemingly faded out by third grade. This lead opponents of early childhood education, some here in Virginia, to question our public investments in preschool. Meanwhile, preschool proponents like economist Dr. James Heckman, insisted we look beyond the short term to the long-term benefits of quality early childhood education. The much cited High Scope/Perry Preschool study, for example, found that children who attended quality early childcare not only were more prepared for kindergarten but in adulthood had higher educational attainment and income than their counterparts who did not go to preschool.
Over dinner recently with a friend who is a kindergarten teacher in Goochland, I got a real-world glimpse into this issue. She shared how she can distinguish those children who have had preschool experience and those who have not, as quickly as the first week of school. She’s noticed differences in cognitive as well as social skills early on, and says the students who didn’t attend preschool often continue to struggle throughout the school year. They also tend to be kids whose families are living in poverty (more on how growing up on poverty has a negative impact on brain development.)
Preschool alone won’t prepare kids for educational success — having a safe, nurturing, and close relationship with parents and caregivers is a critical factor, as is living in a financially-stable home. But parental attitudes toward school matter a great deal, and so does access to quality educational opportunities. Which is why the RPS announcement this week is more than just a reminder to register on-time, it’s also an opportunity to educate the public, whether we have kids or not, about the importance of early childhood education.