More and more school districts are extending their educational offerings to include pre-kindergarten and pre-school programs, and it’s no wonder – they can provide significant benefits to the schools, the parents and the children.
For schools, getting kids used to being in a classroom environment helps them seamlessly transition to kindergarten. And the investment in quality early childhood education pays off later on – studies show that these programs have a positive effect on outcomes like cognitive achievement, physical health, mental health and behavior.
Implementing a quality early childhood education program in a school district isn’t simple, though.
“Preschool and kindergarten are two different worlds,” said Alyssa Anson, who is one of three educational specialists with the Department of Education, Office of Early Childhood for the State of Nebraska.
Alyssa was an early childhood education teacher for nine years before she transitioned to the State. In her current role, she helps 81 school districts across the state maintain compliance with their early childhood education programs. Essentially, she teaches the teachers and administrators now.
“Everything I teach them is rooted in research, and the main thing is that play is the way young children learn,” she said.
An administrator or principal who never had any experience or training in early childhood education, through no fault of their own, may be a little lost in a preschool classroom. In fact, a 2015 survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals shows that just one in five principals feel “well-trained in the instructional methods and developmentally appropriate perspectives for early education.” Yet 65% said they were ultimately responsible for a pre-K program.
In Nebraska, school districts can turn to Step Up to Quality to help them create, maintain and improve their early childhood education programs.
“I’m a big advocate for Step Up to Quality – the program helps school districts with developing the best environment, curriculum, staff and more to help kids thrive,” Alyssa said.
One of the best parts for school districts is that they immediately enter the program at Step 3, which qualifies them for a free, professional coach right from the start.
“For a rural school district, which may have just one preschool teacher, that coach is invaluable,” Alyssa said.
One of the defining parts of Alyssa’s teaching career was being paired with a teacher who ended up becoming her mentor.
“She changed my life,” Alyssa said.
Having a coach available for these teachers who are alone in their district can be similarly impactful.
Public preschool programs can be a critical resource for parents – the programs are often more convenient and more affordable than private schools. And sometimes they’re the only option in rural or urban areas.
Unfortunately, quality is not always keeping up with increased enrollment. Parents have a lot of influence, though. Encourage the schools (or other child care providers) in your area to enroll in Step Up to Quality.
“We’re all working for that same purpose of offering the best possible education to all children,” Alyssa said.