New Jersey invests more money per student in public preschool than any other state according to the 2011 Preschool Yearbook released Tuesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research based at Rutgers University.
But the state has lost ground in providing 4-year-olds access to preschool, dropping from ninth to 16th nationally over the last decade as the state’s program remains limited to 141 of the most disadvantaged districts.
Advocates for preschool say they plan to lobby state legislators to implement the expansion program that was written into the state’s school funding law but then frozen during the recession.
“New Jersey’s preschools are one of the state’s great success stories,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Children across New Jersey should not be denied access to high quality preschool because of their ZIP code.
But just how the state that already spends the most can expand preschool in a cost-effective manner is still under discussion. As a result of the Abbott v. Burke decision, the state funds full-day programs for 3- and 4-year olds in only 35 districts, including Pleasantville, Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton. The remaining districts receive funding for half-day programs that may be limited to children from low-income households.
In 2010-11, more than 51,000 3- and 4-year-olds attended public preschool in New Jersey at an average cost of $11,669 per student, or almost $580 million total, according to the NIEER report. This year, the state is spending about $620 million, and Christie’s proposed budget adds another $14.6 million for 2012-13, but those funds only cover enrollment growth in existing programs, the budget shows. If fully expanded, an estimated 35,000 more children would be eligible for the preschool program, Zalkind said.
Nationally, the average amount spent per student was $4,151 in 2010-11, which NIEER director Steve Barnett said reflects the fact that many programs are only a half day and many states have low standards for staffing and programs, with some not even requiring certified teachers.
“New Jersey has a plan, they just need to follow it,” he said.
Under the state school funding law, New Jersey had a 5-year plan to expand preschool to low-income children in all districts. But when the recession hit, that expansion was put on hold.
In October, Christie created an Early Learning Commission of representatives from several state agencies to recommend improvements to early childhood programs. The commission has not yet filed a report, but a statement from the Department of Education said the NIEER yearbook confirms the state’s continued high-level commitment to early childhood education.
Barnett said possible future options might be for the state to fund half-day programs statewide, or include preschool funding in with the state’s K-12 funding formula and let local districts decide whether to add taxpayer funds for expanded programs. Districts can also use federal Title I money for disadvantaged students to subsidize preschool. Barnett said a half-day program can be very effective if done well, though a full day is most effective if the focus remains on instructional time and not on naps and lunch.
According to the NIEER report, half-day programs cost about $6,000 per student in New Jersey, compared with the $12,730 spent for full-day programs in the urban districts.
Hammonton offers a half-day program for 4-year-olds. Some students are then bused to private child care providers for working families that need a full day of child care.
The district uses the state-approved Creative Curriculum and the 2.5 hours the children spend at school is jam-packed. The focus is on early reading and math, integrated into both teacher-led lessons and activity centers. Students know numbers and letters and are doing some preliminary adding, reading and writing.
During a recent class teacher Debbie Graziano worked with a small group of children making Mother’s Day drawings. The theme is “when I’m with my mom I like to .....” and the children each drew an activity they do with their mother, then wrote a sentence about it as best they could. One likes to “go to the pk (park)“ and another likes to “Plt flors (plant flowers).” At another table three children hooked links to a card that corresponded to the number printed on the card from 1 to 10.
In another class teacher Krista Comunale called out words as Jackson Hellein, 4, pulled them from the class “word wall.” A mixed-age preschool handicapped class students painted flowerpots for their moms, and created posters of zoo animals.
Early Childhood Center principal Marlou Welsh said while it may look like play, lesson plans can run eight to 10 pages as teachers make sure every child gets individual attention on the learning activities as well as free time in the activity stations that have play kitchens, costumes, trucks and dolls.
“We are making full use of the entire room,” Welsh said. “And we know the value of play in teaching children this age. They are learning to work together, share, and apply what they learn.”
Welsh said with more expected from students in kindergarten, students who have not attended preschool are at a disadvantage. Hammonton has a MAPP or multiage primary program for children in kindergarten and first grade who need to catch up to their peers.
“It is tougher now for students who come in with no school experience,” she said.
That’s why the state can’t put off expanding preschool to eligible districts that still don’t have it, said Nancy Parello of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
“We have given credit to this administration for not cutting preschool,” she said. “Now it’s time to put the expansion back on the table.”
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