Preschool closing achievement gap

January 23, 2011
Author: Candice Madsen

SALT LAKE CITY -- One of the best predictors of success in life is whether a child can read at grade level by 3rd grade. But many kids start school so far behind, they never catch up.

A preschool program in the Granite District is attracting national attention for closing the achievement gap.

"The children are getting exposed to a lot of pre-academic social sciences, language development, pre-literacy, pre-math," explained Brenda Van Gorder, director of the Granite School District preschool program.

The early education is especially important at Title One schools where many students speak English as a second language. At Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, students speak 28 different languages.

"The kids who have had the preschool experience really know the language before they get to kindergarten, which is a big plus," said principal Lynda Hart.

Test scores reflect the dramatic difference preschool can make. Before entering preschool, ESL students tested at about the same level as children with disabilities.

After two years in preschool, their test scores are almost on par with English-speaking students.

"Some kids are not speaking a word when they come and by the end you can't keep them quiet. Other kids' confidence level and social skills are really low at the beginning of the year and by the end of the year they are ready for kindergarten," said Alison Ovard, a Woodrow Wilson preschool teacher.

The Granite School District uses money from the federal program Head Start and community sponsors to fund the preschools but the money doesn't stretch far enough. Right now there are 39 preschools but 500 kids are waiting for each spot.

"I think our Legislature needs to see the advantage of having children start school at age 3 and 4. I think it just needs to become a permanent part of education system that we have preschool available to the students," said Hart.

The Granite School District says its preschool program is cost effective. National studies estimate that for every dollar spent on preschool education, as many as $16 is saved down the road because children do not require extra attention in the classroom.

Sunday Edition will take a closer look at the effectiveness of the preschool program beginning at 9:30 a.m. on KSL 5.