Proponents continue to point to studies showing that investment in early-childhood education programs yields positive academic results down the road by fostering a child’s social and emotional relationships and giving him or her a head start on developing and using cognitive skills. So, it was good to hear that New Mexico recently scored $25 million in Race to the Top funds — money that will be paid out over a five-year period and be funneled into literacy efforts for in pre-kindergarten through the third grade.
And last month, members of the bipartisan Legislative Education Study Committee received an update on the state’s 2011 Early Childhood Care and Education Act by legislative staffer LaNysha Adams and early-childhood development specialist Lillian Montoya-Rael, who also serves as executive director of New Mexico Independent Community Colleges. The report’s recommendations included an investment of some $50 million in early-childhood programming with an emphasis on home visits — not just to students about to enter pre-K, but to all expectant mothers (regardless of their income status) to help prepare them to educate their child. Right now, the report notes, pre-K educators are visiting the homes of some 1,900 babies statewide, but within five years they would like to reach as many as 10,000 children. The idea, Montoya-Rael pointed out, is to engage children in the learning process as early as possible. State legislators were receptive. Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, said, “Long-term, this is the best way to improve outcomes” — but all of them had questions about the cost.
For Katherine Freeman, CEO and president of United Way of Santa Fe County, which operates The Santa Fe Children’s Project pre-K school on the campus of Aspen Community Magnet School, the cost is worth it. The school serves almost 100 pre-K students and only recently was able to track a cohort of about 35 students from its pre-K school to Aspen’s kindergarten and compare their literacy skills with those of students who did not take part in pre-K programs. More than a fourth of these students exceeded expectations in literacy comprehension at the beginning of the kindergarten year, according to the data, with more than 87 percent of them exceeding expectations by the end of the year.
“The outcomes leads us to believe that these kids are prepared for school … and that their third-grade reading scores are probably going to be good,” Freeman said. United Way’s pre-K budget is about $500,000 per year, she said, adding, “We are not cutting it yet because there are not enough pre-K programs to serve all the kids in the district.” She would like to see more partnerships evolve between the school district and community organizations to develop and support more pre-K programs, particularly at or close to low-performing elementary schools.
Incidentally, you may recall that the United Way of Santa Fe County convened the summer 2011 Mobilizing for Education summit at Santa Fe Community College, with the goal of engaging citizens in improving the public-school system here. About 180 people attended that two-day event, which spawned three action committees. One of them — the Parent Involvement Committee — seems to have been succeeded by the district’s planned Parent Academy, which is due to start up with a pilot program this coming semester. Freeman noted that the district, under new Superintendent Joel Boyd’s direction, has basically taken on many of the same initiatives that the summit suggested over a year ago. She said she is enthused about his leadership even as she realizes that the summit’s action teams didn’t get as far as planned because “there just wasn’t the will to look honestly at what needed to be done in Santa Fe Public Schools.”
Visit uwsfc.org for more information about United Way of Santa Fe County’s early-childhood programs.