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N.D. sees spike in pre-kindergarten programs

FARGO As soon as kindergartners enter the classroom at the start of the school year, teachers can tell who's had early education. "You don't really need to ask that question," said Fargo kindergarten teacher Tammie Jacob. "I can tell what kids ha...

Head Start in North Dakota

FARGO

As soon as kindergartners enter the classroom at the start of the school year, teachers can tell who's had early education.

"You don't really need to ask that question," said Fargo kindergarten teacher Tammie Jacob. "I can tell what kids have been involved in. (Pre-kindergarten) makes a humongous difference."

It's a difference policymakers are supporting.

After decades of early education being set aside in North Dakota, programs such as pre-K are on the upswing in the state thanks to federal aid.

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The state has received nearly $30 million in stimulus funds, which can be used for early childhood education or pre-K programming.

"We've seen a huge spike in the numbers of (pre-K) programs," said Laurie Matzke, the state Title I director.

The past three years, seven school districts in the state had pre-K programs. That rose to 40 programs this year due to districts taking advantage of stimulus dollars.

While the federal aid only lasts two years, Matzke said districts that started pre-K programs this year did so with the hope the state will soon fund pre-K programs statewide.

It's an optimistic assumption despite the North Dakota Legislature's repeated history of turning down pre-K funding initiatives. Early education advocates even refer to North Dakota and 11 other states without state-funded pre-K as the "dirty dozen."

It's a trend that may now be shifting.

"It's a lot closer," said Sharon Hansen of Dickinson-based Community Action Partnership, which oversees the Head Start and Early Head Start programs in that region.

Ninety percent of kindergarten-age students in the state are enrolled in full-day kindergarten thanks to the 2007 Legislature funding voluntary full-day kindergarten statewide.

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While the 2009 Legislature cut an amendment in House Bill 1400, the primary education bill, that would have funded a pilot pre-K program, advocates say they think it was the last push toward making policymakers more receptive to pre-K.

"I think the momentum is building out there for something to change," said state Head Start administrator Linda Rorman. "How it's going to be funded or how much, I don't know."

Hansen and Rorman are on the 21-member statewide committee on early education chaired by Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple - the first such group in the state. The federally mandated group first meets Jan. 21.

Meanwhile, the North Dakota Commission on Education Improvement, a group of legislators and educational leaders, is exploring if and what to bring before the 2011 Legislature regarding pre-K.

According to a 2007 study by Education Week, 74.9 percent of Minnesota 3- and 4-year-olds and 44.8 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds nationally were in preschool. In North Dakota, that number was at 26 percent.

That may be on the rise.

For the first time in a decade, the state recently received $1.17 million in federal aid for Early Head Start programs in southwestern North Dakota.

The state has eight Early Head Start programs serving about 500 infants, toddlers and pregnant women, and more than a dozen Head Start programs serving nearly 3,000 kids.

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"If we can provide this kind of early education support for families, by the time these kids reach kindergarten age, they should be better off," Hansen said.

Teachers already know that.

At the start of the year, Jacob and other kindergarten teachers at Fargo's Kennedy Elementary School screen kids to gauge their school readiness. Those who miss out on early education, she said, measurably lag behind in social skills, classroom functions and basic letter or number recognition.

"We try to catch them up the best we can," she said.

It's a game of catch-up early education advocates don't want North Dakota to play anymore.

"The research right now is very clear," Rorman said, adding about brain development: "When you look at making investments ... it matters sooner than what people have thought in the past."

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

Related Topics: DICKINSONEDUCATION
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