Oak Ridge Parents Say PreK Has Huge Impact, Should Be Available to All

Let’s face it, parenting can be difficult and getting a child prepared to attend school can be a challenge, even under perfect circumstances. For these Oak Ridge families, pre-K was a valuable advantage in getting their kids ready to be learners.

Within this group, impediments to speech and hearing compounded the usual challenges of early-years education.

For Jerry and Jerri Amonette’s daughter, it meant helping young Ciara overcome a hearing deficiency and learn to function with new implants.

“She was more silent,” Jerry says. “So, until the cochlear implants, she couldn’t follow what was going on when it came to playing and things with the other kids. So they encouraged a lot more interaction and was just really a good experience.”

A Vanderbilt study in 2015 confirmed what Tennessee Pre-K teachers had been seeing for years: Tennessee’s high quality Pre-K programs get children ready for kindergarten. Ciara, now in middle school, would eventually become a straight-A student just like James and John Brown.

Teresa Brown says her boys got the social skills necessary to succeed from their time in pre-K.

“They really were kind of attached to each other and that gave them the opportunity to actually have other friends and do other things, not just together, but to branch out and to learn separately,” Teresa says. “They made a lot of friends. The teacher was really, really good with them to the point where when she got married they came to her wedding and actually danced with her at her wedding.”

The curriculum built throughout their year, introducing the boys to everything from letters and colors to core concepts they would carry into Kindergarten.

“I still have the portfolio because they put so much together,” Teresa says. “They took pictures all year round so that you see the progress that the child did. You actually see where they were maybe not being able to do ABCs to the end that they were naturals at ABCs or they have accomplished their colors, or learned their address. And it makes a big difference. When you can see the progress at the end, you can see where your child began and where the child has learned and has elevated.”

Fabiola Macias and her family moved to Oak Ridge from Chicago to be near family. Her son Sergio, the challenge of learning English was compounded by the fact that he needed surgery to fix a birth defect on his tongue that threatened his speaking ability.

“It was just Spanish at home, and when he started preschool all the teachers were so worried about it and, willing to learn a few of the words for him,” Fabiola says. “After his surgery, he caught up on English like nobody else. He was just fine, and you know me trying to learn the language too, it was just like, they were so supportive of him and before he got to kindergarten he got the experience of, exposed to letters and sounds and all the colors and shapes.”

She says that Sergio’s older brother spent a couple of years playing catch-up with the language where Sergio was ready for kindergarten.

“The difference is that my oldest didn’t have the opportunity to be in a pre-K program. We had just moved to Tennessee and he was just in a kind of daycare-like program. So, it was not the same curriculum, it was mostly like a daycare,” Fabiola says. “Even the teachers in the parent-teacher conference told me they were afraid that he might fail kindergarten because, being bilingual and never being exposed to any other program, he was getting really behind.”

Like many areas, Oak Ridge has an application process for pre-K, and Fabiola wishes it were available to help more kids.

“It’s a shame that you have to qualify for it,” Fabiola says. “It would be awesome if everybody else has the same opportunity, not just because we have low income, or we have special needs. I wish all kids who want it could be able to be part of these kind of programs, because they have extremely huge impact on the kids when they move to kindergarten. In our case, my son needed surgery. By the first month of preschool, he was barely saying three full words in Spanish, and nothing in English. After the surgery, he was enrolled in the program and began to speak English (very easily).”

A TQEE poll in September found that 93 percent of parents think voluntary pre-K should be made available to all four-year-olds.

Next Governor, Legislature Must Go Back To Third Grade

Representative Mark White (R), Shelby County, last week called for a bipartisan early education caucus of the House and Senate to work collaboratively with the new Governor’s administration. White said, “Our guiding focus should be to advance evidence-based, high quality policies that are succeeding in some Tennessee communities and in other states”.

In a guest column in The Commercial Appeal, White cited important improvements over the last decade in public education, but said that much work still needs to be done.

“Most Tennessee students in grades 3-12 are not proficient in English and math, a performance that ranks in the bottom half of all states. Especially noteworthy is that by third grade, the first year Tennessee collects student achievement data, most of our students are already way behind, with nearly two-thirds not proficient in English and math.”

“The question we should all be asking then is: What must be done before third grade to set our children up for success?”

“Tennessee’s education transformation is a work in progress. The General Assembly can be a stronger partner with the next governor to address under-performance of our third graders by placing greater priority on early education programs, from birth to grade 3.”



Tennessee Voters Overwhelmingly Favor B-3 Early Ed as Solution to Improved Education Outcomes

We’re excited to share with you the compelling findings from our 2nd annual statewide poll of registered voters.

The big headline from the survey is that Tennesseans overwhelmingly and enthusiastically believe that investing in expanded quality early education birth through third grade is a solution to address current deficiencies in our public schools and put the state and its students on a long-term path to success. The survey’s key findings include:

  • 92 percent of respondents said that a quality educational experience from birth to third grade provides individuals with the necessary building blocks for all learning;
  • 94 percent want Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program expanded as an option for all 4-year-olds;
  • 93 percent support increased state funding in programs that could ensure all Tennessee children are proficient in math and reading by third grade; and
  • About 70 percent of Tennesseans say that would think more favorably of their elected state representatives who support these initiatives.

The survey was commissioned by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) and conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, Sept. 12-16. The survey of 800 likely voters has a 3.46 percent margin of error.

The survey indicates that across all demographics Tennessee voters believe early education is a critical foundation if we expect our children to succeed in school and life after the age of eight.

The survey explored Tennesseans’ opinions on quality early education programming supported by TQEE and many statewide stakeholders as features to improve education performance. They include early education academic policies and programs, child care and family resources that, while not fully developed in Tennessee, are overwhelmingly supported by Tennesseans.

Academic Policy
Tennesseans want to see the voluntary pre-kindergarten program accessible to all 4-year olds (94 percent) even at greater public cost (86 percent), ensure that every pre-K through third grade classroom has a high performing teacher (85 percent), increase teacher pay to attract and retain top teachers (76 percent) and invest in teaching training and professional development (89 percent).

Child care
Nearly all Tennessee voters understand the importance of quality child care as fundamental to help children get a good start in life. Ninety percent said quality child care has a big impact on school readiness, and by massive margins Tennesseans support investment in child care teacher training and professional development (87 percent), requirement that teachers complete training and certification as a condition of employment (85 percent), and expansion of state-supported child care to help bridge cost gaps for low- and middle-income families (85 percent).

Family support
Nearly 70 percent of Tennesseans support the expansion of evidence-based home visitation (EBHV) programs to boost parenting skills, reduce abuse and neglect, and help advance child learning before they enter school. Sixty-eight percent of voters support additional state investment for EBHV.

Popularity of these policies and programs is attributable to reforms initiated over the past decade that have led to gains that are both positive in academic improvements and popular with parents. But as this poll clearly reveals, we have a lot more work ahead and it must be a priority. We are ready to work with the next governor and General Assembly to make the kinds of changes that deliver results and begin to win back public confidence in our public schools.

That’s because most Tennesseans have a negative opinion of the state’s public education system. Sixty-six percent say that Tennessee’s public schools do not prepare students for the future, and 55 percent say state public education is on the “wrong track.” Almost six of every 10 parents of students enrolled today in public schools are dissatisfied with public education. Only 35 percent of respondents believe that Tennessee public education is on the “right track.”

Dissatisfaction is not surprising given the warning signs in the most important measures. Most Tennessee students in grades three through 12 are not proficient in English and math, an unacceptable performance level that ranks in the bottom half of all states. By third grade, most students are already way behind, with nearly two-thirds not proficient in English and math.

The good news in this survey is the strong support among voters for a robust system of quality education for children from birth to third grade to build on reforms that are working and to accelerate progress so that we can help all Tennessee kids get a smart start in life.

by Mike Carpenter

TQEE Executive Director

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