Research shows value of preschool for poor

Study: Pa. program helps pupils' social and academic skills

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Research released yesterday should end the debate over whether pre-kindergarten classes help level the playing field for the state's most vulnerable children, researchers and study sponsors said.

The three-year study of 10,000 children showed the state's Pre-K Counts program helped the students improve math, literacy and social skills; helped put them on track for kindergarten; and reduced their need for special-education services.

Teresa Heinz, chairwoman of The Heinz Endowments, described Pre-K Counts as "money well spent" for "lives better lived."

"This is the evidence that allows us to finally declare victory in a debate Pennsylvania has been mired in for much too long," Mrs. Heinz said, alluding to disagreements about the program's worth during budget battles in Harrisburg.

Pre-K Counts was "on the chopping block" during the protracted budget process this year, Marge Petruska, senior director of the Endowments' Children, Youth and Families Program, said.

The final budget included about $86.4 million for Pre-K Counts -- the same as last fiscal year.

The Heinz Endowments long has supported early-childhood programs, including 4-year-old Pre-K Counts. The philanthropy contributed $1 million for the study, which was conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and managed by the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation.

It involved 10,002 students at 21 school districts statewide. The students were predominately poor, and many had other disadvantages, such as developmental delays, said Stephen J. Bagnato Jr., the chief researcher.

The Endowments described the study as "one of the largest ever conducted on high-risk preschoolers in the country." Dr. Bagnato, a developmental school psychologist and professor of pediatrics and psychology at the Pitt School of Medicine, said the results were compelling.

The study showed that:

• Pre-K Counts classes benefited children of various racial and ethnic groups.

• Classes rated high-quality had more dramatic effects on children than those judged to be of lower quality.

• Despite poverty and other disadvantages, 80 percent of children in the study demonstrated skills necessary for success in kindergarten -- well above what would have been expected without the program.

• While the participating school districts traditionally placed 18 percent of high-risk children in special-education programs in kindergarten, only about 2 percent of Pre-K Counts children required those services.

The children in the study ranged in age from 3 to 6 and attended classes for four to 24 months. Those who spent more time in the classes had larger gains than peers who attended for shorter periods.

Pre-K Counts is one of the funding sources and programs that districts may use to operate early-childhood programs. Other funding sources are federal Head Start money and state Head Start Supplemental Funds.

Both Head Start and Pre-K Counts serve children in poverty; Head Start is for the neediest children.

Unlike many districts, Pittsburgh Public Schools operates early-childhood classes mixing students who benefit from Head Start, Pre-K Counts and other funding sources. Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said a robust early-childhood program is essential if students are to stay on track to graduate high school and take advantage of the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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