For the 9,800 children in Washington who attended the state’s preschool program this past school year, the challenges went well beyond learning to count and identify letters.
Nearly half — 4,112 — live in families with incomes that are half of what the federal government considers the poverty line. Roughly 10 percent are homeless, 13 percent have at least one parent with mental health issues, and for 12 percent of them, one or more of their parents never finished middle school, much less high school.
But a report from the state’s Department of Early Learning suggests that the Washington Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) is making a big difference in these 3- and 4-year-olds’ lives – emotionally, physically, and academically.
The report looks at the results from a new tool that the preschool teachers are using to rate everything from how well their students follow directions to how well they know the alphabet.
In the fall of 2012 (the latest data available), about half the children had the skills expected for their age in social-emotional development, language, literacy and cognitive development. A little over a quarter reached that level in math.
By the end of the year, teachers reported that more than 90 percent reached what is expected in all those areas except math, which ended in the mid-80s.
Such results are encouraging for those who want to expand preschool in Seattle and across the state. And they back the decision by state legislators to expand the ECEAP program by 1,350 students this coming fall.
There are some caveats about the Early Learning department’s report: The data are self-reported by preschool teachers, who have a vested interest in showing their students improved, although the department says all the teachers went through training aimed at ensuring they evaluate students in a consistent way.
The preschool teachers also appeared to give students’ more advanced ratings than kindergarten teachers did a few months later. It’s not clear why that’s the case, in part because the two sets of teachers didn’t evaluate students in exactly the same way. Another possible factor is the well-documented phenomenon of summer learning loss.
But even the kindergarten teachers reported fairly high levels of kindergarten readiness for ECEAP children — somewhere in the 70-80 percent range in most areas, except in math, which was at 48 percent.
Both sets of data show that ECEAP students are making big gains, said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP. (ECEAP is the state version of the federal Head Start program.)
“They are making a lot of progress with these kids, and the taxpayers are clearly getting a great investment out of this,” he said.
One reason, he said, is that the program doesn’t just focus on children, working closely with parents to help them with housing, employment, emergency food, medical and dental care — whatever they need to stabilize their lives.
Nicole Rose, the state’s ECEAP administrator agrees, but also notes that it will take a few more years to fully analyze what the new data means.