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.