Last year, Maryvale Prep opened its doors in the Maryvale neighborhood of West Phoenix. This charter school, a part of the Great Hearts Academies network, serves primarily low-income Hispanic students in Kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Among the kindergartners at his school, Headmaster Mac Esau saw a major trait that divided the group: whether students had attended a pre-Kindergarten program.
Only half of the initial kindergarten class attended any prior schooling. The students who had never been exposed to a school environment were, by comparison, significantly less prepared academically, socially, and behaviorally for the education Maryvale Prep was providing.
This phenomenon is not limited to Maryvale Prep nor is it new. All across Arizona, every single year, students – predominately our most at-risk students - are arriving to school unprepared.
Children begin learning as soon as they are born, and unfortunately, we see gaps in learning appear as early as 9 months old. Research shows that children from middle class families – on average – begin kindergarten with a vocabulary of 20,000 to 30,000 words, while their classmates from low-income backgrounds have an average vocabulary of 5,000 words.
This achievement gap tends to persist through school as students who begin behind are not statistically likely to catch up. In a 2009 study, McKinsey & Company determined the economic impact of this achievement gap was the equivalent of a permanent recession.
We know, from longitudinal studies out of the University of North Carolina, the National Institute for Early Education Research, and others, that attending a high quality early childhood program can have significant and long-lasting impacts on children because of the high capacity for the brain to absorb new information during the first five years.
There has been a much greater awareness in recent years of the connection between educational achievement and economic viability. With the changing economy, we know that education will continue to be one of the greatest drivers of long-term economic prosperity.
Because of this heightened awareness, Arizona has moved forward some significant reforms to increase the quality of our education system, including adopting Arizona’s Common Core Standards, implementing new teacher and principal evaluations, passing Move on When Reading, and using a new A-F grading system for schools. All of these efforts are important in closing the achievement gap, but we need to do a better job ensuring families have access to quality early education programs too.
If we are serious about increasing our economic viability through improving our education system, early childhood has to be a topic of conversation. We know many of the characteristics of a high quality preschool program: well-trained educators, small child to adult ratios, a focus on language development, collaborative relationships with parents, and developmentally appropriate instruction. The questions we need to be asking are: Who has access to these programs? How do we increase access? And how do we ensure quality?
We know Arizona voters support investments in early childhood, and we know that early childhood education plays a critical role in supporting academic and life achievement for all. Let’s start the conversation about how we make sure we are connecting the resources we already have in the community - and the opportunities that might exist for expanding those resources – to the kids who need them.
Kelly McManus is the government affairs director for Arizona's Stand for Children.