Many exceptional teachers begin class with an anecdote, an illustration to real life, a good story or mind puzzle to draw their students' interest into the lesson. With setting that hook in mind, I'll draw on a short story as a segue into the topic of early education.
My parents spent over two decades teaching low-income children in some of the smallest villages in Alaska -- remote areas of Alaska where teachers were difficult to find and retain. My mother believed in the power of literacy and making sure kids had an opportunity to develop academic skills at an early age. One of her true passions was ensuring children had the option of a preschool program –- especially because she taught kindergarten. My mother passed away this summer; however, her enthusiasm for early learning still resonates with me. Therefore, the next few paragraphs are dedicated to the most important issue of early education.
Evidence clearly indicates early learning programs increase all children's potential to be academically and socially prepared to begin kindergarten. According to the National Institution for Early Education Research, "High-quality preschool education can support early development in ways that yield long-term social and emotional benefits. A significant part of the long-term economic pay-off to public investments in high-quality preschool programs can come from their social outcomes, including the prevention of crime and delinquency."
As stated within a 2015 study completed by the Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, children who attended a formal preschool are more likely to "have higher achievement test scores, repeat grades less often, need less special education, graduate from high school and attend college at higher rates. However, only 3 percent of Alaskan four-year olds are in state funded pre-K, far below the national average of 28 percent." (In 2015, 64 percent of all five-year old children entering Alaska public schools attended preschool. Of these students, 61 percent attended a federally funded, private or nonprofit preschool.) In support of pre-K education, Commissioner Alyce Hanley wrote, "Alaska has been recognized as providing high quality preschool opportunities for children, yet ranks near the bottom in being able to provide that chance to Alaska's children. The need is great, and our program is far too small." The percentage of children attending preschools in Alaska must be increased especially for low-income children who lack access or funds for other early education programs and who, at no fault of their own, enter kindergarten considerably less prepared than their middle- and upper-class peers.
In order to begin kindergarten as successfully as possible, all children must have access to quality preschool programs. As an example, my daughter turned 5 last month and has attended high-quality day care programs since she was 6 weeks old. This year my daughter and her classmates transitioned into preschool and most can already count past 50, spell and write their names, know the alphabet, can add and subtract single digit numbers as well as name all the colors and recognize continents. If children are Alaska's most valuable resource, we need to ensure that each and every single child has this type of opportunity no matter what region of our great state his or her parents live in or their income level. The state must assume a more active role to ensure that early education opportunities are available to all children, especially for parents that do not qualify for federally funded early learning programs and cannot afford the cost of a private preschool. Should this not be the expectation?
For the past six years in our district, the Alaska Gateway School District, based in Tok, if any community has a minimum of four children age 4 by Sept. 1, a preschool is established or continued directly within the public school. We learned through trial and error that the best place to locate a preschool program is within the public schools of our communities. Due to budgetary limitations, a noncertified aide, as opposed to a certified teacher, provides the instruction. The district also provides free breakfast, lunch and a snack for all early learning students. Our preschool programs do not generate any state funding and solely rely on a multiyear Alaska Native Education grant, Moore grant, partnership with Tanana Chiefs Conference as well as general operating funds to remain in operation. One of the reasons our district surpassed the state average in all areas of the Alaska Developmental Profile that is given to all kindergarten children entering public schools, is I believe, directly correlated to having 75 percent of these students enrolled within early learning programs. We believe so strongly in the effectiveness of preschools that this is one of the last programs the district would consider eliminating from the budget.
Currently 36 percent of Alaska's children are not enrolled in any type of preschool or early learning program. This percentage must be reduced so that teachers are providing grade-level lessons instead of utilizing important classroom instructional time to plan catch-up strategies. A chart created by the Alaska Department of Revenue illustrates that a $5.2 billion operating budget is at the national average for the population density of our state. However, as reported by Andi Story in the Alaska Association of School Boards' 2015 June Commentary, "Nationally, the average that states spend on their children's education is 35 percent (compared to Alaska's 26 percent) of their budget." Does this percentage difference reflect there may be state funding to support a pre-K program for public education?
Since the future of Alaska is directly dependent upon the leadership of our children, we need to place considerable effort into further developing programs and strategies for children under public school age. The Alaska Council of School Administrators, which includes umbrella associations composed of the superintendents, principals and business managers, is currently in the process of approving a Joint Position Statement in support of pre-K education that states: "ACSA believes early childhood education must be a priority for all Alaskans who desire to increase the long-term success for all children." The Association of Alaska School Boards "supports and encourages districts and/or communities to develop early childhood programs, which include parent and family involvement."
As a state, we need to ensure that all kids have the opportunity to begin public school education as successfully as possible. The bridge to success begins with early education.
Todd Poage is in his ninth year as superintendent of the Alaska Gateway School District, based in Tok..