Three days before the end of pre-school, Ms. Sabrena and the children sit around the table playing Bingo on boards the size of placemats. Nawal only needs one more tile to win. Tiny and delicate, with dark, serious eyes, she has quietly assembled a dangerous arsenal. Ms. Sabrena notices and raises an eyebrow. "You have to watch out for the quiet ones," she says. But a few moments later, when Nawal's number comes up, Nawal won't say the one word her teacher wants to hear. Ms. Sabrena encourages her: "What do you say?" Nawal places her tile on the board, looks straight ahead and says nothing.
Ms. Sabrena—Sabrena Robinson to those over three feet tall—works at a childcare center in Raleigh, North Carolina, a state with one of the most acclaimed child care systems in the country. From the outside, the center looks like nothing special: a low, cinder-block building with a big backyard. What's unusual is Ms. Sabrena's classroom. Of the 100 or so children enrolled at the school, 18 of them—those in Ms. Sabrena's care—are part of something called North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten, a free state program designed to ensure that every child in the state is ready for kindergarten by the age of five.
In recent years, a number of studies have shown that pre-Kindergarten programs can help low-income children succeed in later grades and eventually get good jobs. Many researchers feel that investing in pre-K is the best and most cost-effective way to lift children out of poverty and to build up the economy. As the director of one pre-K program in North Carolina put it, "There are only 2,000 days between the time a baby is born and the time she shows up for kindergarten and her experiences in this time will determine how her brain is wired."
Education experts all around the country have cited North Carolina’s system as one of the best examples of what states can do to ensure a bright future for children deemed “at risk” of struggling in school. The state funds not just one but two related programs. While the first, North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten, only enrolls four-year-olds, a second, Smart Start, offers a variety of services for children ranging in age from birth to five. No other state has gone further in investing in young children, so last year, when legislators in the state slashed the budget for both programs by millions of dollars and made several other policy changes that would have prevented thousands of low-income 4-year-olds from getting a free education, the news upset teachers and child care advocates well beyond the borders of North Carolina.
In 2010, for the first time in a century, Republicans had come to power in the state legislature, and like many other lawmakers around the country, they had responded to the recession by pulling money out of programs for the poor. Thousands of low-income kids who would have otherwise started preschool in September were put on a waitlist. Political turmoil ensued. Six months after the cuts were made, the governor, a Democrat and a former teacher, came up with enough money to take most of the kids off the wait list, but by then only half a year remained until the start of kindergarten. Ms. Sabrena wasn’t sure that would be enough time for Nawal.
Nawal was Ms. Sabrena’s most challenging case*, and Ms. Sabrena had a few theories as to why. The child didn’t speak English at home (her parents came from what is now North Sudan) and, as far as Ms. Sabrena could tell, she’d spent little time around other children before starting the pre-K program. (The terms pre-K and preschool are often used interchangeably, but educators tend to reserve “pre-K” for those programs specifically geared toward preparing four-year-olds for kindergarten.)
Nawal’s parents were strangers to the country and they didn’t seem to have many friends here. Even if they could afford swimming classes or ballet or karate, Ms. Sabrena wasn’t sure they’d know where to look.
In some ways Nawal’s situation wasn’t so different from that of her classmates. Most of the children in the state program come from poor families, and many of the kids in Ms. Sabrena’s class tested their teacher’s capacity for maintaining a calm demeanor. One of the girls would barely eat anything all day; the way she pushed her food around on the plate reminded Ms. Sabrena of an anorexic teenager. Another girl had to meet with a speech therapist because she couldn’t pronounce simple words. Even so, Nawal stood out. As far as Ms. Sabrena was concerned, none of her classmates were more “at risk” than her.
Sometimes Ms. Sabrena wondered whether Nawal suffered from selective mutism, an extreme social phobia characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings. For the first month of school, she didn’t talk at all. When the other kids filled buckets in the sandbox or made make-believe cakes in the make-believe kitchen, she’d stand against the wall with her hands balled by her side, staring into the distance.
After some time in the classroom, she’d slowly started “coming out,” as Ms. Sabrena put it. She began sitting on the rug during circle time, joined the other girls at the make-believe stove, rode a tricycle in circles around the playground. By the end of three months, she was even talking a little. She talked quietly, never more than a word or two at a time, and only when someone talked to her first, and rarely to grownups. But she talked. Recalling this discovery, Ms. Sabrena raised her hands to the heavens and did an impression of a choir singer praising the Lord.
As Nawal had settled into the classroom routine, Ms. Sabrena began taking videos of her on her phone. She intended to give
them to Nawal’s mom to give to Nawal’s kindergarten teacher so that the teacher wouldn’t make the mistake of putting her in a special ed class. Ms. Sabrena didn’t think she needed special classes. All Nawal needed, she felt, was a little more time. But now the end of the program was only three days away. “Nawal,” said Ms. Sabrena, “will you call the numbers?”
The ever enthusiastic Bryan came to the rescue: “I will call the numbers Ms. Sabrena!”
“Hold on,” said Ms. Sabrena. “I was asking Nawal. Nawal?”
* The names of some students and parents have been changed at the parents’ request.
A GROWING NUMBER of education experts believe that there’s no better way to improve the prospects of “disadvantaged” children than by sending them to preschool. Studies find that children who receive intensive pre-Kindergarten services go on to get better grades and make more money than those who don’t, and turn out happier and more confident and have fewer psychological problems later in life. This idea has become commonplace in the world of educational studies, but that wasn’t always the case. Until recently, the mind of the young child was as obscure as a distant galaxy. People who believed in the importance of preschool had little hard evidence to back up their convictions. The field is still a “frontier,” as one advocate put it, but advances in brain science and data collection have made it possible to venture far deeper into this frontier than ever before. Some scientists now test the brains of young children for cortisol, a hormone associated with stress that is believed to interfere with normal brain development. Others slow down videos of infants to the point that every little eyelid flutter, every twitch of the lip can be coded and interpreted.
As a result of these advances and discoveries, and of the advocacy groups that promote them, many states around the country have taken it upon themselves to provide preschool services for free. To gain the political support they need, the architects of these programs have argued that preschool helps not only poor people, but people in general. They cite the work of the economist James Heckman, invariably mentioning his Nobel Prize before noting that, according to his recent research, every $1 invested in preschool turns into $7 to $9 when the program’s graduates complete their education and start contributing to the economy. Advocates also point out that many state programs actually improve the quality of private childcare by requiring hybrid centers like Ms. Sabrena’s to meet a set of statewide standards in all of their classrooms, public and private. And they make the case that every kid in a public-school class benefits when the teacher doesn’t have to spend hours dealing with complex cases like Nawal’s.
Last spring, Steve Barnett, the head of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, released a report touting the growth of state-funded pre-K as “education’s biggest success story” of the last decade. “Enrollment has grown dramatically and, in a number of states, so has quality,” he wrote. “But after years of steady progress, our data show that many states’ commitments to their youngest citizens are now slipping.”
Of the 39 states with some form of public pre-K program, about half have cut spending since the start of the recession. Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio now enroll a smaller percentage of four-year-olds than they did a year ago, and Arizona has scrapped its pre-K program altogether. In many states, legislators are fighting over money.
At the center of the controversy is the question of whether preschools make a crucial difference for children. So it’s no accident that one of the fiercest debates is playing out in North Carolina, where all three of the state’s big research universities—Duke, University of North Carolina and North Carolina State—have contributed some of the strongest available evidence showing it does. The most influential study comes from a place called the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, a branch of UNC just 20 minutes down the road from where Nawal goes to school. Along with investigating the effects of early childhood education, the scholars run a preschool of their own and conduct evaluations of other schools and programs. The North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten program earned the highest rating.
One afternoon this summer, Kate Gallagher, the director of the preschool, strolled through an empty classroom while the children played outside. She pointed out the shag carpet and a pile of pillows. “To get our top rating, every classroom has to have a soft corner,” she said. She gestured toward the shelves of blocks and flashed a conspiratorial grin. As it turns out, some preschools have removed blocks from their classrooms in an attempt to get kids ready for the standardized tests that they’re now required to take every year starting in the third grade. Gallagher said she was interested in developing architects and engineers, not just test-takers. “The block center has to be big enough, has to have enough cool stuff in it and”—she narrowed her eyes like Clint Eastwood—“it won’t be interfered with.”
Outside in the courtyard, children were swarming over rubber mats. Some were drawing on the ground with chalk, some were steering ships through a tub of water. A boy ran by with a bucket on his head. “Things you’ll notice in high-quality programs: not a lot of kids are just wandering around,” Gallagher said.
Like much of the current scholarship on early childhood education, Gallagher’s ideas of what constitutes a high quality program are rooted in something called the Carolina Abecedarian Project, an experiment that began at the Frank Porter Graham Institute back in 1972, some decades before Gallagher began working there. The program’s “abecedarians” (children learning their ABC’s) came from poor families and received a full day of care every weekday from infancy to the age of five. Their education consisted of “games” (blocks figured prominently) and emphasized the development of strong relationships between children and teachers. Reading and numbers were considered essential, but not to the exclusion of listening and playing and sharing. Researchers interviewed and tested the children every few years, comparing them with a control group, and found them more likely to graduate from high school and college, more likely to work consistently throughout their lives, and less likely to use public assistance. This year, the oldest of these children turned forty.
One of the beneficiaries of this experiment was Latesha Foushee, a woman who had such fond memories of her time at the Institute that she pursued a career in early childhood education and eventually got a job there. As Gallagher expounded on the blur of activity in the courtyard, Foushee stood over the tub, watching a small boy navigate a pirate ship through an ocean visible only to him.
When Foushee was growing up in Raleigh, she said, she had two best friends. They were all from poor families, but of the three, only Foushee lucked out and was accepted into the Institute. One friend now drives a forklift for the Keebler plant where she’s worked since dropping out of high school, and the other recently posted something on Facebook about gastric surgery. “She was extremely obese,” Foushee said. “She must have been 500 pounds.”
Foushee graduated from high school on time, received her child-care certification from a community college, and spent her 20s working as a preschool teacher and leading a youth group at her church. She got a job at Frank Porter Graham in her 30s, and she’s now finishing her associate’s degree while raising two kids of her own. She’s also in the process of adopting a 15-year-old neighbor whose grandmother died recently.
Even a critic of the Institute—and there are many—would agree with the basic point of Foushee’s story: preschool can help children overcome great obstacles. When conservatives in North Carolina want to justify cutting the preschool budget, they refer to the work of scholars like Eric Hanushek, at Stanford University, and Chester E. Finn Jr., formerly of the Reagan administration and now of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Ohio. Finn argues that public preschool should be restricted to kids who most need it and can’t otherwise afford it, and Hanushek believes that North Carolina’s system could cut down on expenses. But neither contend that children don’t need preschool. Instead they ask: How much do they need? And how much should it cost?
At Frank Porter Graham, the answer to both of those questions is “A lot.” For Foushee and the other participants in the study, the time spent in class was just part of a very large package. The program’s staff “provided transportation, they provided diapers, they provided wipes, they provided food and milk,” Foushee recalled. On their birthdays, the children were made to accompany a teacher on the long and frightening journey up a flight of stairs to the health clinic, where a nurse doled out vaccination shots. “I used to hate my birthdays,” Foushee said. But she never got measles or hepatitis.
Some critics feel that the Frank Porter Graham preschool is simply too expensive to replicate on a mass scale. Hanushek, the Stanford scholar, argues that “some of the evidence about the importance of pre-K comes in extraordinary instances and extraordinarily expensive circumstances.” He questions North Carolina’s practice of hiring one teacher for every nine four-year-olds. By employing fewer teachers, he says, preschools could afford to pay more and attract the best people to the job.
In North Carolina, the state pays pre-K teachers less than $30,000 a year, which is actually several thousands dollars more than a teacher could expect to make in a classroom funded by federal subsidies. Still, it’s a lot less than what a qualified teacher could earn at a private preschool or in a classroom for older kids. In Ms. Sabrena’s class, where there are eighteen children and two adults (Ms. Sabrena’s stepfather is the assistant teacher), each child costs the state about $8,000 a year. At the Duke School, a top private school in the Raleigh Durham area, the sliding-scale fee for pre-Kindergarten tuition ranges from $2,850 to nearly $15,000. And while Ms. Sabrena’s student-to-teacher ratio is considered very good, Duke’s is better. In a section of the website titled “Our Advantage” the school explains why it employs one teacher for just every eight four-year-olds: “Small class sizes allow teachers to form close relationships with students and families—and to tailor instruction to the needs and interests of the individual.”
Nawal is sitting on the rug with her skinny legs folded, her back straight, her hands clasped in front of her belly. She’s looking at Ms. Sabrena with an expression that is neither angry nor friendly— Ms. Sabrena thinks of it as “stoic.” Her eyes are intelligent, observant.
“Nawal. Can you give me a ‘here’ today?”
Zanaya, a big, rambunctious five-year-old, presses the heels of her hands into the carpet so that her butt hovers above the floor. Bryan rocks back and forth. Ms. Sabrena looks up from her list. “Maybe you can give me a ‘here’ tomorrow and make me so happy.”
Tomorrow will be Nawal’s last chance to participate in the ritual of attendance-taking before startng kindergarten, and although this might seem like a small thing, Ms. Sabrena doesn’t think of it that way. Ms. Sabrena spends part of each day reading to the kids and teaching numbers and letters and days of the week, but she knows that to succeed in school, they’ll need to know how to do more than read and count. They’ll need to know how to play with other kids and how to follow directions, how to sit still and listen when someone else is talking (a particular challenge for the energetic Bryan). And they’ll need to be able to say “here” or “present” when the teacher calls their name.
The North Carolina program, like the childcare center at the Frank Porter Graham Institute, aims to help kids grow in a wide variety of ways. A lot of that development is supposed to take place in the playground or at the “activity centers,” discrete areas of the classroom where kids can curl up with a book or play board games or collaborate on a tower of blocks. Four times a day, Ms. Sabrena gives the cue: “You can go to your centers now.” Today, after she takes attendance, Zanaya, Alan and Bryan head over to a table and open up the watercolor sets. Nawal and Jayla go to the “housekeeping center.” Nawal places a little doily in every cup in the muffin tray, as meticulous in her play as she is in her silence.
Ms. Sabrena sits and watches, breaking her own silence every now and then to ask a provocative question. A query about a water color rainbow prompts a debate between three girls on whether black is a color. In many ways, Ms. Sabrena seems ideally suited for this job—she’s firm, patient and has a master’s degree in counseling from North Carolina Central University. She’s also up to the physical challenges of chasing four-year olds around a playground: a purple bruise on her arm attests to her weekends spent playing flag-football in cities around the south.
And then there’s the fact that she’s literally had nearly a lifetime of experience. Her mother, Joyce Robinson, founded the center when Sabrena was a child, and Sabrena’s sister, stepfather and uncle all work there. Sabrena got her first job there when she was 16, and continued working there through college. But she doesn’t plan to stay much longer. After a stint in marketing and event-planning at Duke, she returned to the preschool business because it was “basically a way to spend more time with my son,” she said. She described it as a “sacrificial decision.”
As Hanushek said, good teachers require more than experience and education. “We have to pay the best teachers a lot,” is how he put it. Ms. Sabrena, a single mother, earns the standard state salary of less than $30,000, pulling her and her son below the poverty line. If she worked in one of the private classrooms at the center, she could, in theory, ask her mother for a raise, but child-care centers often operate on the thinnest of margins.
“I have the skills, I have the education to make more money,” Ms. Sabrena said as the children settled on their cots during nap-time. “So why not go do it? This state does not seem to value education that much, unfortunately.” Across the classroom, Nawal lay flat on her stomach with her sneakers on, her sheet folded under her in an untouched square of linen. Ms. Sabrena opened her laptop and went online to look for jobs.
Is it possible to lower the costs of pre-K and still retain the qualities that make it so beneficial to low-income children? In the kid-filled courtyard of the Frank Porter Graham Institute, Kate Gallagher offered a blunt reply: “No.”
Many advocates hope that the November elections might bring in more legislators willing to raise taxes on people in the upper income bracket. Last spring in Raleigh, Governor Bev Perdue attempted something along those lines when she proposed a sales-tax hike of three-quarters of a cent. To no one’s surprise, the Republican legislature shot her down. Thom Thillis, the speaker of the house, called her plan “more of the same failed approach that led to the fiscal mess the Republican legislative majority inherited.”
Recently, local politicians in both parties have accused each other of exploiting the debate for political gain. Democrats say that Republicans have tried to play on people’s fear of Big Government; Republicans say that Democrats have pandered to people’s affection for children without providing enough evidence that the system actually works. In an attempt to save it, some advocates have tried to tamp down the rhetoric, noting that one of the most outspoken supporters of North Carolina Pre-K is Robert Orr, a retired state Supreme Court justice and a Republican. They also point to Governor Jim Hunt, a popular Democratic governor who helped lay the foundations for the state’s investments in early childhood education back in the 90s and recently pushed to save the program by befriending Justin Burr, a Republican legislator 50 years his junior.
Robb Leandro, a 33-year-old lawyer in Raleigh, has a unique perspective on the controversy. When he was 14, he was picked as the lead plaintiff in Leandro vs. The State of North Carolina, a landmark case in the history of North Carolina law. Robb had grown up in a poor, rural county where the tax revenues were so low that the schools couldn’t afford science labs or decent sports uniforms. A team of activist lawyers made the case that the state had shunned its constitutional obligation to provide Robb and his classmates with an adequate education.
A first baseman on his high school team, Robb was particularly concerned about the uniforms. “I thought it would be awesome, when we played another team in sports, to not look like the 70’s Astros,” he said. As it turned out, the case ended up being about much more than the injudicious use of polyester. In 1997, it went up to the state Supreme Court and was assigned to a judge named Howard Manning, who reviewed more than 600 pieces of evidence and listened to the testimony of over 40 witnesses, among them Dr. Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Institute. After 22 days, Manning ruled that North Carolina had indeed violated the state constitution by failing to provide at-risk children with an opportunity for a “sound and basic” education.
The state appealed and the case went back to the Supreme Court, but Manning’s main ruling held. Starting in 2004, the state began funneling money into pre-K.
Robb Leandro, meanwhile, went on to law school and landed a job at the firm that argued his case. Every few years he still gets calls from reporters asking his opinion on some education-related matter or another. There’ve been a lot of calls lately. Last August, Judge Manning ruled that the legislature’s changes to the program went against his earlier decision, and advocates now expect the case to head back to the state Supreme Court for appeal. Leandro is following the saga with little enthusiasm. “I’ll be frank with you,” he said recently. “I’m a Republican and I’m a huge conservative. My parents view that if you work hard, the sweat of your efforts will pay off. But the second piece of that for me is, as a Republican, providing opportunity at the earliest age is one of the best things you can do to promote hard work.”
The argument against investing in expensive preschool services for children of the poor comes down to this: Is it worth it? Those who say that it might not be often explain their stance by calling upon a well-rehearsed idea of what it means to be an American. As Leandro put it, “If you work hard, the sweat of your efforts will pay off.”
Certainly this is the case for many people. Nawal’s mother, Afel, hopes it will be the case for her daughter. Afel came from Sudan, where, twenty years ago, the literacy rate for the entire population was less than fifty percent, and where women rarely made it past high school. Defying the odds, Afel advanced beyond high school and college and ultimately graduated from medical school as a surgeon. She succeeded by the sweat of her efforts, and also because she was born with certain advantages.
Her grandfather, she said, was an unusual man, “a dreamer.” He died when she was a child, but she had heard stories about him—about how he grew up in a poor village on the Nile and moved from there to a suburb of Khartoum, a place so new and quiet, she said, that if you stood in the middle of the neighborhood, you could hear the train on one side and the lion in the zoo on the other. Afel assumed her grandfather must have taken this bold step in the hope of providing his children with an education. If so, his efforts paid off. His son, Afel’s father, became a teacher, and taught elementary school, and then primary school and then a college for teachers. Her sisters all earned masters’ degrees, and her mother, who had left school after the fourth grade, resumed her formal education at the age of 30.
Afel says she hoped to become a doctor in the United States, but things did not go according to plan following her arrival. She couldn’t afford the books and fees required to get a license here, and her husband, a cab driver, grew depressed and distant. One day this summer he moved away. Ms. Sabrena said Nawal cried for days. Afel says Nawal still sometimes asks when her dad will be coming home from work.
One day in August, Afel took a seat in Nawal’s classroom and waited for her daughter and the other children to come in from the hall. About 15 parents sat on either side of her. The children filed in. They wore caps and gowns. They sat down in a neat, quiet row, facing the parents. Ms. Sabrena addressed them. She said she hoped this would be the first of many graduations. Then the director, Ms. Sabrena’s mother, read a speech, which boiled down to a list of guidelines for future success: “Remember to use your ‘listening ears’,” “Always do your homework.”
The children rose. Over the past few days, Ms. Sabrena had taught them to stand as a group and deliver a message on cue. Now she gave the signal, and the children cried out, in unison, “Thank you mom and dad, I love you.” Nawal said the words—all of them. Afel and the other parents watched and applauded. There were a lot of smiles, and a lot of cameras. Ms. Sabrena turned on the music, and the kids filed back out into the hall.
On September 4th, Nawal will start kindergarten. A few months after that, the state’s Supreme Court justices are expected to rule on an appeal of the Leandro decision. What they decide could determine the fate of preschool not only in North Carolina but in every state where advocates and educators are looking to North Carolina for examples of how to educate young children.
Even if the court allows the state to continue cutting back on the program, as some advocates fear, it’s not entirely clear what would be lost. A comprehensive study of the system would cost millions, so advocates have mostly relied on those studies of “extraordinary” preschools like the Frank Porter Graham center to make the point that preschool is important. As of August, however, they’ve also had another piece of evidence to point to. For the first time ever, according to the State Board of Education, North Carolina’s high school graduation rate climbed above 80 percent. Although it’s hard to pinpoint the precise reasons for this, many educators are quick to note that the 17-year-olds who donned caps and gowns in the spring of 2012 were four-year-olds around the time that Governor Jim Hunt’s administration was laying the foundation for the current pre-K system.
So who will put on a cap and gown in 2025? Will Nawal be among them? Afel thinks so. Sabrena does too, but she doesn’t think it will be easy. As Afel and Nawal walked down the hall to the front door, Ms. Sabrena took Afel aside and said something about “selective mutism.” She encouraged Afel to take Nawal to a doctor. Afel, the doctor, said she didn’t think that would be necessary. The two women looked at each other for a moment, and then Ms. Sabrena bent down to try one last time. “Nawal?” she said.
Nawal didn’t look at her. As she walked away with her mother, Afel turned and made a promise. “When she opens up,” she said, “we will come back.”
This story originally appeared in our free new weekly iPad magazine. You can download Huffington, in the iTunes App store.
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