Nothing much changed. I saw it when I happened to drive by recently. The asphalt playground, the beige stucco walls, the chain-link fence, the classroom of the big rug and many windows, it was all there. This was where I went to kindergarten, the school down the street, on the busy corner, where we 5-year-olds of the neighborhood were brought together for our first lessons in social interaction.
Now they call it “early childhood education.” We just called it school, but it had the desired effect. We learned how to get along, who was good, who was not, what could and could not be done and remain in good standing. We learned to listen to the teacher, to be still and quiet when appropriate, or loud and boisterous when given permission. We made friends. We were exposed to piles of books we found could be much more interesting and entertaining once we learned to decipher the text. We saw words and numbers on cards the teacher held up, and soon determined that learning about them would make everything better and easier.
The memories are not vivid. Everything’s gotten misty since I trod that pavement, when Eisenhower was president and “Volare” was September’s No. 1 on the pop charts, but the effects surely linger. And in a few weeks there will be a new pack of 5-year-olds in the same space, learning the same things, and they too will be better for it. They will be learning to learn.
I don’t know when the social scientists began to emphasize how important these early days of learning can be. The concept of kindergarten, the nurture of the human seedlings in advance of official schooling, dates to the mid-19th century. It became a political issue in the 1990s, when the research started to reveal the genuine benefits of early learning and governments were obliged to arrange financing. It has become such an established concept that in 2006, when half-day kindergarten was very much the state-funded norm, the state set an official goal of making full-day kindergarten universal by 2017. The Washington Supreme Court in its landmark McCleary decision, insisted the Legislature accelerate funding for all-day kindergarten as part of the constitutional requirement to fully fund basic education. This past session the Legislature approved $90 million to double the number of schools eligible for all-day kindergarten, some 35,400 students in all, better than 44 percent of the state’s 80,000 or so kindergartners.
The funds are sent first to schools with more students from low-income families. In North Central Washington, 14 new elementary schools will be funded for all-day kindergarten, bringing to the total to 32 schools in 20 districts, according to a recent story by The World’s K.C. Mehaffey. It will supplement funding in Wenatchee and Eastmont schools, where all-day kindergarten was already offered. School districts like Omak will be restoring full-day kindergarten once erased by budget cuts. Districts like Okanogan will be offering it for the first time.
There are skeptics, who say that all-day kindergarten is just an exercise in state-funded day care. There is some truth in that, perhaps. The expansion of single-parent and two-income households has changed the nature of families since my “Volare” days. But the research shows definite educational benefits. Children in all-day kindergarten later tend to do better on standardized tests. They are less likely to be held back. They are better able to learn in first grade. Their literacy and math skills improve. One study said all-day kindergarten accounted for 60 percent of one group’s academic improvement, compared to a half-day group.
Advocates for early learning cite other studies, that show public funding for pre-school and kindergarten provides us a good return on investment. Compared to what society pays in the future for the underachievers, spending a few dollars early on pays off handsomely. If that is true, and I suspect it is, we move in the right direction.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.