Arizona preschools lag behind the national average, but varying standards may play a role.
Peoria mom Kim Davis enrolled her kids in preschool so they could “learn how to go to school,” i.e. socialize, share and sit still. “If they come out of preschool not knowing their numbers and letters… we don’t really stress about it too much, because they’ll get it when they’re ready.”
Children develop at different rates and learn in a variety of ways, says Ginger Sandweg, senior director of early learning at First Things First (FTF), Arizona’s public funding source for early childhood development and health programs fueled by 2006’s Proposition 203 tobacco tax revenue.
In a recent study conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) that examined preschool programs in all 50 states, Arizona was one of nine that met less than half of NIEER’s benchmarks. It fell short in teacher degrees, class size, staff-child ratio and more.
Sandweg says the NIEER report looks specifically at publicly funded, center-based programs for 3- to 5-year-olds and doesn’t include private or in-home preschools. FTF, on the other hand, assesses across home, private and center-based programs.
There are many ways children access preschool in Arizona, says Liz Barker Alvarez, FTF’s chief policy adviser. She cites school district, faith-based and nonprofit schools as well as Head Start, Early Head Start and Department of Economic Security-subsidized programs.
FTF allocates funds to communities based on the percentage of children in poverty, and then 28 regional partnership councils determine the greatest needs. The money is also used for parent, teacher and health resources.
However, NIEER reports the funds derived from tobacco tax revenue decreased 24 percent between 2007-2015 and are projected to decline. FTF works with Arizona State University on those projections and sets its annual budget accordingly. It also maximizes existing funding through business and faith-community partnerships, Alvarez says.
Arizona preschools follow the Arizona Department of Education’s Arizona Early Learning Standards, a 207-page document framing the skills children ages 3-5 should develop. “When we look at quality in Arizona, we are looking at curriculum that is aligned with those standards,” Sandweg says.
Federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start serve lower-income/at-risk children and must meet Arizona’s standards, as well as standards set by Congress, says Dana Staser, assistant director of coaching for Southwest Human Development’s Early Head Start and Head Start. “The bottom line is that everyone has an equal footing when they get to kindergarten,” Staser says.
While there’s not a national standard on what a quality early learning program must be, Sandweg says most agree that the environment, interactions, teacher qualifications, curriculum and assessment are important. “How we measure those categories varies.”
Quality First, a voluntary FTF program that aids Arizona’s early learning programs with assessment tools, partners with more than 1,000 preschools and childcare centers across the state. Participants are eligible for scholarships and other resources.
Valley of the Sun JCC Early Childhood Center, a private preschool in Scottsdale, participates in Quality First, says director Rachel Wallach. Quality First sends a coach to the school each month.
Teachers monitor developmental milestones and look for red flags, says Jessica Knight, the center’s assistant director. For example, if a child going into the 3- to 4-year-old classroom can’t grasp Play-Doh with a pincer grasp, she won’t be able to grasp a pencil properly. Teachers then plan more experiences for the child to build those muscles and catch up.
Knight says that in addition to making sure children have a foundation for kindergarten, JCC teachers strive to help them develop strong social/emotional skills. “They may be the smartest kid at Harvard, but they’re not going anywhere unless they can be a good person and get along with others.”
THE PRESCHOOL ADVANTAGE
National studies show that children exposed to high-quality early childhood education…
• Are 40 percent less likely to need special education or be held back a grade
• Are 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime by age 18
• Have better language, math and social skills, and better relationships with classmates
• Have better cognitive and sensory skills and experience less anxiety
Score higher on school-readiness tests