Louisiana's Pre-School Champion

Cecil Picard on the phone with a preschool student.
Cecil Picard on the phone with a preschool student.
SparkAction
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
March 28, 2005
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Cecil Picard on the phone with a preschool student.

Cecil Picard, superintendent of Louisiana schools, likens the journey to school to a 100-yard-dash, with the starting line for disadvantaged kids set 40 yards behind the rest of the pack. In the race to kindergarten, few disadvantaged children can sprint fast enough to catch up with their better-positioned peers.

The solution, says Picard, is quality preschool for every child—offered free to those whose families can't afford to pay.

Picard is a former elementary school teacher. He says he "saw that with poor, single parent, working families, if they did not get (early education) in schools, they were apt not to get it at all." Later, as chairman of the Louisiana Senate Education Committee, Picard studied brain research showing that the early childhood years provided unrecoverable opportunities for intellectual development.

A Growing Consensus

The Future of Children issue on school readiness.
According to the journal The Future of Children, which devoted its Spring 2005 issue to school readiness, "Making preschool enrollment universal for three- and four- year-old children in poverty, could close up the 20 percent of the black-white school readiness gap." A 2001 study in the Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that established preschool programs administered through public schools for low-income children were "associated with better educational and social outcomes up to age 20."

But when Picard introduced a number of early education bills in the early 1980s, the response was lukewarm. When he became superintendent in 1986, Picard kept hammering away at the issue. For years he lobbied anyone who would listen. Finally, then-freshman senator Bill Jones agreed to help promote LA4, a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds.

LA4 rolled out its pilot program in 2001. At the time, Louisiana's pre-K scores on measures of school readiness were far behind national averages: 10th percentile in language, 11th percentile in print, and 5th percentile in mathematics. By the 2003-2004 school year, Louisiana's youngest students were solidly in the middle of the national pack: 50th percentile in language, 59th in print, and 46th in math, according to evaluations done by Dr. Craig Ramey of the Georgetown Center for Health and Education in collaboration with Louisiana State University.

The full-day, five-day-a-week program now serves 7,400 children (88% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch). That's about a quarter of the disadvantaged 4-year-olds in the state. Available in over a third of the state's 68 districts, LA4 is free for most families, though some families pay an income-based fee.

Quality Plus

According to Ramey LA4 preschoolers attend "among the highest quality classrooms in this country." In the 2003-2004 school year LA4 classrooms ranked well above national averages on the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R), a national rating for preschool classrooms.

The U.S. Department of Education may take it beyond state borders, by using LA4 as a national demonstration model. With Congress again debating the reauthorization of Head Start, Picard is talking to senators about a pilot Pre-K program for southern states, whose methods could be shared with the rest of the country.

LA4 teachers must be certified, and are paid salaries commensurate with their degree and experience, so they can make as much teaching four-year-olds as teaching 14-year-olds. Support services include student vision, hearing and dental screenings and medical and mental health referrals. Parents are offered housing and utilities assistance and adult education. About a third of students benefit from a before- and after-school enrichment program.

It all adds up, says Ramey, to give high-risk children the boost they need to keep up. The "children are making really dramatic progress overall in the LA4 program, and in fact, are entering kindergarten at or above the national average in key developmental areas."

"Louisiana is the second poorest state in the nation. Forty-four percent of the children born in this state are born to a single mother," says Picard. "Their parent is working to put food on the table and a roof over their heads."

The Economic Argument for PreSchool

Recent follow-up studies on the now-adult graduates of the Abecedarian and Perry preschool projects have strengthened interest in long-term benefits from early education.
Picard cited results of exhaustively studied programs like the Abecedarian Project and the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, along with successful programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, to convince Louisiana legislators to invest in LA4. While local leaders supported the idea, funding was tricky. "When you go to the legislature and say I'd like $20 million to start an early childhood program, they are not going to see the benefit of that for many years to come," says Picard.

High among the costs of not providing early education is a troubling economic future for the entire state, according to Picard. Without an educated workforce, attracting commerce can be daunting. And students who struggle with school or drop out, not only don't contribute to economic welfare, they often burden it. "Many of these kids are screened into (costly) special education programs," says Picard.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, among the risk factors for youth violence are poor academic performance and school failure, common themes in Picard's pitch. "If you invest $5000 up front, it is much cheaper than $25,000 per year for incarceration down the road." (LA4 costs $5,000 per student for the 6-hour school day, and an additional $1,100 per student for the before- and after-school program participants.)

One Town Sees Payoff

Schools in West Feliciana Louisiana, which started intensive early education a decade before LA4, have delivered return-on-investment. "We had a problem," with students coming to kindergarten with serious language deficiencies, says West Feliciana superintendent of schools Lloyd Lindsey. The city, which is home to some of the poorest people in Louisiana, now has some of the highest test scores in the state. According to Lindsey the strong schools are drawing new residents, and median income in the city has doubled.

Picard wants to have funding for LA4 built into the state's permanent education fund, along with K through 12; and he's going back to the legislature this spring for an additional $20 million to expand LA4 to all districts in the state

Rep. Carl Crane, chairman of Louisiana's house education committee says Picard will probably get it. "The legislature is very proud of the education reforms we have put in place," says Crane, who credits Picard with facilitating an uncommonly cooperative relationship between educators and legislators.

LA4 is a "win-win," for both children and the state according to Stephanie Dessell, Senior Vice President of Council for a Better Louisiana, a non-partisan public interest organization. But, noting that West Feliciana has a strong educational system for all grades, Dessell is concerned that some post-preschool curriculums are not as robust.

One Skeptic, One Fan

Darcy Ann Olsen, President of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative public policy organization echoes the concern, noting that the Abecedarian Project also went beyond preschool, providing interventions for students from infancy throughout the children's school years. In less comprehensive programs, says Olsen, "you will sometimes see short-term gains, but they wash out in later years." Olsen points out a 2003 study by the University of Georgia which shows that test scores of Georgia kindergarteners who attended preschool were not significantly different than those who didn't.

But Shanna Tastet says her thriving 5-year-old's newfound confidence is a testimony to preschool. "Her teacher gives her more I can give her academically," says Tastet, a single working mother of three. She searched six months for a new home in a district that offered the program, so her daughter and her youngest child (who is 18 months old) could benefit from LA4.

Tastet's oldest child, now nine, attended preschool before LA4. "He was bored. One day he'd want to go and the next day he wouldn't want to go." Though her daughter has a speech impediment (which LA4 provides therapy for), "she always wants to go." Tastet is grateful her daughter has the chance. "It is not the children's fault that they don't have the money to go to preschool," she says "I don't want her left out."

Resources:

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a freelance writer in Burnsville,
Minnesota.

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