JEFFERSON CITY - Children from lower-income families are likely to gain the most from quality preschool experiences, according to a state study that was released this week.
"The findings confirm our belief that Missouri's recent investment in early childhood and parenting education is 'smart money' that could pay big dividends for children, families and schools," Gov. Mel Carnahan said in a press release.
The study, which was conducted last fall, involved 3,500 Missouri kindergartners. Teachers at 80 randomly selected public schools were asked to evaluate student readiness in areas such as factual knowledge, communication, physical development, and work with others.
The results of this study offer strong evidence that preschool and parent involvement are important components of preparing children for kindergarten, Carnahan said in the release.
"As any kindergartner or first-grade teacher can tell you, too many children start school without the preparation and skills they need to be most successful," he said. "As a result, many of these children struggle academically from the very beginning and may never catch up."
Carnahan said this discrepancy is especially true for minority children and students in schools with a high concentration of low-income children. In response to this problem, the state has begun funding various early childhood education programs to close the "readiness gap."
During the 1998 legislative session, lawmakers established a fund to provide grants to Title I preschools across the state. The federally funded Title I program -- a remnant of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson's "Great Society" -- issues grants to school districts around the country to help educate lower-income students.
The Columbia school district, which currently has six half-day Title I preschools, was one of 84 Missouri school districts that applied for and received a state grant to add to the Title I money. The district received approximately $150,000, most of which went toward establishing a full-day preschool at Blue Ridge Elementary.
Originally, the district wanted to establish two full-day preschools at both Blue Ridge and Eugene Field Elementary, said Title I Director Mary Humlicek. However, there was not enough money even to fully fund one school.
"As a stipulation of the grant, a portion of the money had to be invested in the community," she said. "We provided training to both licensed home care and non-home care providers, and also gave funding to the EduCare program, which provides educational materials to early childhood centers."
The school district combined the rest of the grant money with other Title I and early childhood education subsidies, as well as tuition from parents, to fund the full-time preschool at Blue Ridge.
The full-time program, which has a capacity for 20 children, costs $180 a month for Title I participants, and $360 a month for other families. Although lower-income students are given priority for placement under federal law, all families are encouraged to apply.
"Our goal was not to just increase the number of spaces for children but also improve the quality of care and experiences the kids have," Humlicek said. "The purpose of the grant was to improve a child's preschool experience."
The state grant is renewable for three years, but Humlicek didn't know if the school district would get the same amount of money next year. She said their goal is to make the preschool a self-supported program so it does not have to be heavily dependent on state control.