Around the country, early child hood education and "pre-K" are gaining traction. As a key part of Governor Peter Shumlin's education plan, he supports universal pre-kindergarten for all three and four year olds in the state. Currently, the state offers the choice of pre-K to four year olds.
According to a 2013 report on the state of pre-kindergarten education by the National Institute for Early Education Research located at Rutgers University, reported in their Expanding Access to Quality Pre-K is Sound Public Policy paper, there are two major benefits to early education.
"First, state and local pre-K programs, almost without exception, are found to improve academic readiness for school, sometimes quite a lot," the report states. "Second, there is substantial evidence of persistent impacts on achievement well beyond school entry, even though these are somewhat smaller than short-term impacts."
Dan French, superintendent of Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union said that early education research proves that it is a prudent educational investment, especially for students in poverty.
"A kid coming from a poverty background has relatively very few words under their command; a student who comes from a middle-class, more affluent background, has been exposed to a tremendous amount of language," he said.
While early education is extremely important to help get students ready for school, French said he does not like the pressure students can face early on, like learning concepts too soon that should be taught at a later date.
However, it is just something that needs to be monitored, he said. There is a socio-economic gap in this country that manifests itself in education he said.
However, it is also a social pro blem that schools are caught in the crossfire on.
"I think it would be a mistake to think that pre-K is the place where all these things are going to be fixed," he said. "Whether we like it or not we have this issue of an income divide in this country, one of the greatest divides we've ever had ... that manifests itself in things like sight words, vocabulary discrepancies. I'm not going to personally as an educational leader go crazy and insist that our kindergarten kids meet standards. School should be fun for those kids and be developmentally appropriate."
In the Manchester area, there are some programs already available, including public school programs at Manchester Elementary Middle School, the Mettawee Community School and at private institutions like Northshire Day School. In other districts in the BRSU, pre-K programs are contracted with private pre-schools. While the programs are different, they do share similarities. MEMS and Northshire Day School each have a waiting list to attend and both use a play-based curriculum to prepare children for school emotionally, socially and in some ways academically.
"We're getting them ready for school and the expectations are very different [than when others started kindergarten]," Jane Gras, curriculum coordinator and head teacher at Northshire Day School. "We can really help with the social readiness, being with a group, getting along with others, verbalization and saying if something is wrong, self-regulation."
She said if children have these social skills all together before kindergarten, it doesn't matter if they can't spell their name or don't know every color. With social readiness, children will be better equipped to learn, she said.
Cristina Maddocks, executive director of the school, agreed with Gras that kindergarten has changed greatly, as well as the stress for early childhood education. Because there is more research and data showing its importance, Maddocks said. There has been more focus on pre-K and other pre-school programs.
She said even though it seems as though infants may not gather as much from being in an environment like Northshire Day School, they are still learning emotional and social skills, as well as language skills by spending time with other infants.
"We're so lucky we can be such a powerful impact on these kids lives," she said. "Their cognitive development, all the changes happening. It's astounding the amount of growth that's happening."
A major difference between MEMS and Northshire is who is educated. MEMS youngest students are in the pre-K class. At Nort hshire, the youngest are infants, some only six-weeks old.
Sarah Merrill, principal at MEMS, said their program offered is a universal pre-K option for four year olds. They also have a partnership with Head Start, a federal program for at risk children in early childhood education.
"Our pre-K program uses the Creative Curriculum, a curriculum designed for young learners," she said. "The curriculum has a focus on play-based instruction which focuses on the development of the whole child."
In the pre-K program offered at MEMS, students attend school the entire day. When it comes to different specials, like art, music or physical education, they still go to those classes, but they are altered to be more developmentally appropriate. Instead of eating lunch in the cafeteria, for example, they would eat in their classroom with their teachers.
All three would agree that students do benefit from a pre-K program of some kind. Gras said some students do not have a pre-K program and transition well into kindergarten and others do not. What students do have, she said, are the emotional and social skills needed to go to kindergarten.
Dan French, superintendent of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, said there is very strong research proving the importance of early education.
Merrill said very few students come to MEMS with no prior school type experience. What the students that transition from pre-K to kindergarten at MEMS have is comfort with the school.
"Students who attend our early education program gain experience in the daily routines of a large, public school environment. They are familiar with schoolwide rules, expectations and procedures," she said. "Riding the school bus, visiting the nurses office and playing on the playground, for example."
Under Act 62, which sets the regulations for pre-kindergarten currently in Vermont, a district can pay an amount per 10 hours a week and contract with a private provider that meets certain criteria. Northshire Day School currently has a contract with the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union for this kind of agreement. French, said Act 62 incentivized early education because by adding the students enrolled in pre-K programs; the students could be counted in average daily membership, which could have the potential to lower property taxes.
However, this is the formulation under Act 62. French said there will be many changes with the new law, requiring universal pre-K for three and four years olds in Vermont, which will go into effect in September 2015.
"In the new law there are a lot of regulations to be created," he said. "Everyone has questions right now and no one has the answers because the answers will come from those regulations."
French said this would impact the budgeting process the school boards go through in a significant way. For example, the district cannot negotiate the pre-K contract with private providers under the new law; now the state will set the rate for how much will be paid.
Maddock said this could change how Northshire Day school operates and this change to the law has been discussed many times. But, she and Gras said they would be flexible and just develop a larger infant and toddler program if needed.
Not everyone is a proponent for universal pre-K, though. Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, said the biggest problem they have with how pre-K is being described in Vermont is that it is being done in a dishonest manner. He said that the assertion Gov. Shumlin and President Obama have made that for every dollar invested in pre-K will result in a seven dollar return is false. This number he said, comes from the High Scope Perry Preschool project, in the 1960s with 123 inner city, African-American students in Chicago.
"All the students in the High Scope Perry Preschool project all had low socioeconomic status and IQs in the range of 70 to 85 ... only 58 took park in the education program ... the program involved 2 to 3 years of half day preschool seven months a year and periodic home visits," he said. "That program did have a good return. But it has no resemblance to the program what so ever to the program Vermont is offering to three and four year olds."
He said the program Vermont is offering will not see the return on investment that is promised, nor some of the other benefits, like more people with jobs and fewer incarcerations. Citing a study conducted by Head Start, Roper said all benefits of pre-k programs can no longer be seen in the third grade.
"So if you're going to be investing ... hundreds of millions [of dollars], putting a lot of pressure on property taxes, how do you justify the investment based on real numbers?" he said.
Along with the investment, Roper does not like the idea of the government taking over the clients of private pre-K and daycare centers. He said the push for this program is nothing but a political move, driven by teachers unions.
"The place where the evidence shows where you actually do have long term benefits, in terms of jobs, in terms of less incarceration, less likely to be in poverty is at the college level," he said. "More than ever, a college degree is an indicator of future individual prosperity. The evidence is there for that, we could debate we should be spending the money at all. But if we're going to be expanding educational opportunity by one or two years, it would make a lot more economic sense to do it at the college level."