By DIANA HAINES
Skinnamarinky dinky dink, skinnamarinky do, I love you.
Twenty tiny four-year old voices sing in unison while packing their backpacks to leave Mandi Walden’s pre-kindergarten class at Coles Ferry Elementary. Ms. Walden teaches one of the 9 pre-k classes in the Lebanon Special School District. LSSD’s pre-k program provides 180 children across the district with a jump start on an education and statistics show education is the best long term solution for fighting poverty.
LSSD’s pre-kindergarten program is one of those educational programs funded by the Tennessee Lottery. The benefits of funding these early intervention programs far outweigh the future cost. Shannon Nehus from Prospect says, “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars fixing children in later years that didn’t get that early support. The money spent on pre-k is minimal compared to the amount spent in later years and significantly more effective.” James Heckman, Noble Laureate in Economics in 2000, has quantified that savings by submitting that every dollar spent in early educational intervention saves $5 to $7 in future expenditures.
“Children are being taught in Kindergarten the same skills that used to be taught in 1st grade. Pre- K is essential for the children that we serve because these at-risk children lack the necessary skills for entering Kindergarten and being successful, especially skills in literacy, language and vocabulary.” Ms. Walden says. “In Pre-K we work on the ‘whole’ child by addressing things like the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical needs of each child. Kindergarten teachers say they can always tell the children that went through a pre-k program because those children already know structure. They understand routines and schedules and they know how to get ready to learn.”
LSSD’s pre-k program focus is on serving the underserved, those children who are eligible for free/reduced lunch and other “at-risk” factors such as developmental delays. Dr. Jamie Coburn, while working on her doctoral dissertation through Tennessee Tech, studied the differences in school readiness for children from various socio-economic backgrounds based on pre-kindergarten attendance. “Using age equivalent scores, the program effect of the pre-kindergarten program was found to be 1.68,” Dr. Coburn cites. “In other words, the difference in age equivalence between children entering pre-kindergarten and children who were entering kindergarten who just completed pre-kindergarten was 1.68.” That shows tremendous growth for children that did have pre-k versus those that did not, and this growth is in that group of children that typically start out behind their peers. “It’s the children that have 5 books instead of 100 books in their home that we want to get to,” Penny Thompson, Pre-K Administrator for LSSD says. “We want to work with them while their minds are the most malleable, in those birth to 5 years.”
There certainly is a compelling argument that pre-k programs are crucial for shaping our tiny future citizens, but step foot in a pre-k classroom, and the impact of this program is overwhelming. Along with the education they get in the classroom, pre-k children go on field trips. They go to places like the Pumpkin Patch, the airport, and the Discovery Center. Publix opened their doors and their hearts to these young children on one field trip and had sample tastings and special gifts for each child in every section of their store. When the classes left, they were sent away with a huge sheet cake to enjoy later. “We even took the Music City Star to Nashville this year,” Mandy Pittman, the other prek teacher at Coles Ferry says, “Some of these children have not gone far from their own neighborhoods. For children that have spent most of their lives cloistered, the impact of this type of experience is amazing. It changes their world.”
LSSD gives priority to providing positive learning experiences for 4-year olds and chooses to go on field trips twice a month. Most programs do not provide this many field trips opting for field trips once a month or even twice a year. “We concentrate on opening up the world to our children. We want them to learn academics, but we also want to broaden their horizons. We want them to understand that life is more than four walls and a television,” Ms. Thompson says.
The LSSD pre-k field trips have a direct tie to learning in the classroom. Teachers coordinate the theme of the field trip to the learning theme in the classroom to extend the learning experience. This makes a direct connection for the child. For example, the field trip to Publix was scheduled at a time when the theme of the learning center was food and the consumer. Children were able to purchase fruits and vegetables in the produce center set up in their classroom, or select flowers in their very own in-house floral shop, or bake and decorate cakes in their bakery. They got the opportunity to push a food cart to various centers of the classroom store and select food to purchase at the checkout counter. They even got to drive the inhouse delivery truck to the classroom store to deliver crates of food. These classroom learning centers give children the opportunity to apply their knowledge in real-life ways that are fun, engaging, and easily accessible at their age. Essentially the children are applying the skills of language, vocabulary, and math while learning real life lessons about the society they live in, as well as themselves.
Unfortunately, this noble cause is always in jeopardy. “Funding is an annual challenge,” Penny Thompson says. “We can never be sure from one year to the next if we will be able to continue our program.” Now, with ongoing negative reports about the continued availability of lottery funds, that future seems even more precarious. College students get the opportunity to earn lottery funds for their education, but four year olds are just learning about the possibilities this world has to offer. For this generation of children to succeed in today’s rapidly changing world, they have to be proficient in core academic subjects and capable of learning quickly. State and local governments have to empower our educational system to prepare these children as no other generation has prepared before.
Governor Bredesen is a great supporter of pre-k programs but some others, have been slow to recognize the power of this program and enact any sort of legislation to fund it. Here is a real, true to- life perspective. If you are 40 today, then in the year that this year’s pre-k children are your age, you will be in your seventies. Chances are you will no longer be a wage earner. Hopes are they will be. LSSD’s pre-k program is working to make that promise of economic growth and sustenance for the future your reality. None-the-less, these children are, right now, hanging in the balance between a lottery and legislation. One look into their big eyes, wide open and excited about learning, gives the greatest clarity.
The scale should tip in the direction of their future, because it is ours.
Diana Haines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to talk to your legislators about Pre-K programs, you can find out how to get in touch with them by visiting www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators.