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PRE-K PRESSURE: Officials seek to expand programs

FARGO The emphasis on getting more students to graduate from high school and to be smarter when they do is taking a new tack. Experts now look to the beginnings of formal learning - pre-kindergarten - as a way to turbocharge learning from kinderg...


The emphasis on getting more students to graduate from high school and to be smarter when they do is taking a new tack.

Experts now look to the beginnings of formal learning - pre-kindergarten - as a way to turbocharge learning from kindergarten to diploma.

Fargo School District officials like the idea so much they're supporting a call for the state Legislature to fund some form of preschool statewide when it starts meeting in January.

"I think pre-K is a huge value to everybody," School Board President Jim Johnson said. "It has very positive outcomes for children of all walks of life."


West Fargo and Moorhead school officials are also interested in pre-kindergarten programs.

"Pre-K is certainly one of our shared interests" with Fargo schools, West Fargo School Board President Karen Nitzkorski agreed.

The long-term potential for pre-kindergarten "is something we're very interested in," said Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash. "There's a lot coming out about the benefits. They say you get a 10-to-1 return on the dollars."

Proponents of pre-kindergarten say the advantage for children is that they develop learning skills needed in kindergarten.

For example, when Head Start teacher Angela Heller at Fargo's Madison Elementary offers her preschoolers a lesson, she spends 10 minutes in an exercise that hones skills for the next level.

Learning letters.

How to hold a marker.

How to concentrate on a task.


Boosting their confidence and creativity.

"For many kids, this is their first social interaction with kids their own age," Heller said. "You can just see the kids are happy. They're engaged. They love coming here. I just wish there was more places like this!"

The preschool programs now available in the Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead districts are relatively limited in reach.

Each of the districts provides preschool for special-needs children as required by federal law.

There are also Head Start classes offered at schools in the metro, as well as at several other sites in the cities. Those federally funded classes are targeted to improve learning for low-income and at-risk children.

'Gearing Up'

North Dakota State University also offers a program called "Gearing Up For Kindergarten," which helps parents learn how to better prepare their children for school, and helps children become more emotionally, socially, cognitively and physically ready for school.

Fargo is now in its fifth year of participation. Classes are one day a week for 16 weeks (eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring), said Sean Brotherson, a family science specialist with NDSU Extension Service.


The Extension Service supports and evaluates the program.

There are five sites in Cass County, Brotherson said. They are at Madison, Jefferson and McKinley elementaries in Fargo; the Lodoen Center in West Fargo; and at Kindred-Davenport Elementary School.

Statewide, Brotherson said up to 18 sites will offer the program this school year.

State funds requested

Fargo is among several districts that have asked the North Dakota School Boards Association to offer a resolution to the Legislature seeking more preschool funding, the Fargo School Board's Johnson said.

Preschool helps many groups of at-risk children; among them, the economically disadvantaged, those with autism or new Americans, Johnson said.

And data indicate fewer dollars are spent on remedial education if children master the basics of reading, writing and math at an early age, he said.

"The theory is that it may even lower your dropout rates," Johnson said of pre-kindergarten.


West Fargo wants to look at the data on the effectiveness of preschool, but Nitzkorski said the potential payoff could be worth the investment.

"We really need to start earlier," she said, but, "We need to define how it looks to us."

Lawmakers to get look

The North Dakota Commission on Education Improvement also wants to improve preschool offerings.

The 16-member group, made up of lawmakers, superintendents and officials - representing teachers, school boards, higher education and business - has studied the state's education system the past two bienniums. Many of its suggestions have changed how K-12 education is funded and staffed.

The group, led by Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, has set its sights on broadening preschool statewide by expanding Gearing Up For Kindergarten statewide and increasing the number of qualified preschool teachers.

The commission's draft report of suggested K-12 education changes offers several preschool funding recommendations to the Legislature when it starts meeting again in January:

- $330,000 for administrative and organizational costs to implement G-earing Up For Kindergarten statewide.


- $500,000 to pay one-third of the costs of the 15-week sessions of Gearing Up For Kindergarten classes at schools statewide over the biennium.

- $125,000 in grants to help schools provide safety-compliant classrooms for preschoolers.

- $150,000 in continuing education grants for teachers to upgrade credentials for preschool.

- $150,000 for grants to help people in the child care industry get a Child Development Associate credential.

Commission member Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, said there may also be interest in aiding public-private preschool partnerships in rural areas.

The other side

Not everyone believes a structured preschool education is good for all children.

Some worry whether government-funded preschool might hurt private-sector providers, such as day care operators.


Others, like Earleen Friez, president of the North Dakota Child Care Providers Inc., say structured preschool is too much for some children.

Friez said she doesn't speak for the group, but is opposed to "the trickle-down effect" seen in what's required for children to know. Kindergartners now learn first-grade material, she said.

"We are simply pushing these children academically too soon, too young," Friez said, adding that children still learn in more relaxed child care settings.

Others, however, look at preschool for all as a gift.

"I think the research is very strong with early intervention. The sooner we can begin to work with and provide time for students, the benefits pay off down the road," said Bob Grosz, Fargo's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

"I think what pre-K would do is basically provide a gift of time," Grosz said. "It's a gift of time to deepen those skills for those that don't have them."

Pre-K statistics

Some statistics about pre-kindergarten programs across the United States, provided by Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Pew Center on the States.

State-funded pre-kindergarten programs serve about 24 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds.

Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma are the only states that now make pre-kindergarten available to all 4-year-olds.

Ten states have no state-funded pre-kindergarten program at all.

Nationwide, state spending on each pre-kindergarten child averages about $4,000, or about one-third of the average dollars spent on each public-school student in K-12.

The average pre-kindergarten teacher earns less than half of what the average elementary school teacher earns. About 70 percent of pre-kindergarten teachers report earning a salary below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

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

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