NJPSA Weighs In On the Benefits of Early Childhood Ed, Past President Sturdivant Shares Her Insights On What Constitutes A High Quality Program

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By Jennifer Keyes-Maloney

NJPSA Past President Fidelia Sturdivant shared her insights on what constitutes a quality early childhood education program as part of the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on the benefits of preschool and full-day kindergarten.  NJPSA also provided the committee with research on the longitudinal benefits of investment in early childhood education, joining national and state stakeholders in a call to invest.

Basis for a Hearing

Spurred by Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) advocacy efforts associated with early learning, as well as the work of newly formed coalition, Pre-K Our Way, which advocates for high quality pre-school education, yesterday’s hearing focused on what constitutes high quality early childhood as well as longitudinal data which supports cost savings through investment in early childhood education.

“We need to have a broader, more serous discussion about investing in the greatest asset in the state of New Jersey, and that’s our children,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the committee chair said at the outset of the hearing.

The Speakers

The hearing began with testimony from state Department of Education officials who testified that New Jersey provides more than $600 million to offer preschool to more than 45,000 3- or 4-years olds in low-income communities.  Most of those districts are the former “Abbott districts,” although the State is a recent recipient of a $17 million federal grant that expanded its preschool program to more schools.

ACNJ, noting that New Jersey is a national leader, urged lawmakers to expand the program beyond the boundaries of the former Abbotts or what federal dollars subsidize.  Similar testimony was heard from Pre-K Our Way, a non-profit focused on expanding preschool in New Jersey with spokesperson Brian Maher stating that too many children don’t have access to public preschool because of where they live, even if they are from a low-income family.  Maher suggested the state follow SFRA more completely since the formula compelled enhanced dollars for early childhood education.

“I am not talking about expanding childcare or daycare,” Maher said. “I am talking about expanding high quality pre-k programs that already exist in the state.”

The state has not followed the formula, with the Department of Education saying New Jersey doesn’t have enough money to do so.

Among the line-up of speakers was Dr. Steven Barnett whose longitudinal research of the early Perry Street pre-school in Ypsilanti, Michigan showed positive outcomes continue into adulthood – either through reduced grade repetition, reduced special education referral, increased high school graduation rates, earning potential, as well as reduced crime and teen pregnancy rates.    Barnett argued that high-quality preschool across the state would save $850 million a year in K-12 costs in terms of remediation and special education alone.

Testimony also included data related to reduced criminal convictions and incarceration through investment in early child ed.

The argument for pre-school was bolstered, however, with testimony from folks in the field like Principal Sturdivant.  Ms. Sturdivant provided the committee with an overview of the key ingredients to ensure high quality early childhood.    Drawing on her experience as an educator, Sturdivant spoke about the need for high-quality teachers and school leaders working collaboratively with parents to ensure student success.

“I point to our ‘Special Formula’: Supportive parents + Highly Qualified Teachers + Research Based Instructional Program + Nurturing Environment = Academic Success.” Sturdivant said.

Adding to this was testimony from a veteran kindergarten teacher from Freehold who produced a packet of Week One assessments from some of her new students.  Randee Mandelbaum’s new students were asked to draw crayon self-portraits and demonstrate how well they knew their letters and numbers. On the left side of the sheets was the work of children who hadn’t been through preschool, and on the right side were those who had.

Each showed a stark difference between the children, with those who had attended preschool drawing clearly recognizable images while those who had not, illegible scribbling.

“You will see one student does not know any letters, cannot write any letters, and doesn’t even know how to write her own name,” said Mandelbaum, a 20-year veteran. “While the other student can write most of the alphabet comfortably.”

Those were just the obvious differences, she said. The kids who had been to preschool were better to separate from parents, go to the bathroom on their own, follow two- or three-step directions, use scissors, and interact with peers. And the gaps remain through the year.

“The children with pre-K knowledge and experience nearly always come into my class with the essential social, emotional, and academic skills, able to launch an essential year in kindergarten,” Mandelbaum said.