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Provide Pre-K to 4 Year-Olds and Toddlers Too

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Schools around the nation are ending the regular school year, preparing for summer school and in New York City the mayor and school officials are trying to create a national model for effective Pre-K education.

It wasn't easy to create this opportunity because New York State's two top Democrats, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is running for re-election, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the newly elected Progressive, engaged in a struggle, in the early spring, over the expansion of Pre-K education. But with the federal government gridlocked, there was agreement that the state should expand. However, the battle got bloody because de Blasio also wanted to attack income inequality and futilely demanded that rich New York City residents pay for the city's program, while Cuomo was loathe to increase taxes.

Eventually a compromise was worked out. Cuomo and the legislature funded a statewide expansion, including giving de Blasio $300 million per year for the next 5 years to quickly and massively expand Pre-K for 4 year olds in New York City.

De Blasio, galvanized by this victory, promised to add around 21,000 full day Pre-K seats by this September and another 20,000 by the beginning of the 2015 school year. The greatest challenge during the next 14 months will be to hire 2000 teachers, 2000 trained assistants and to find many new spaces in community based organizations and in an already overcrowded school system.

Nothing could be worse for de Blasio and the 21,000 children than placing some poorly trained teachers in front of them this September. The city is looking for "enthusiastic and effective early childhood educators," but, if need be, they'll accept anyone who "1. Holds a bachelor's degree; and 2. Upon hire, develop a study plan that within three years will lead to teacher certification." The city also states, "there is a particular need for teachers fluent in... Spanish, Mandarin, Haitian-Creole, French, Urdu, Bengali, Russian, Korean, and Arabic."

This daunting challenge, that even some advocates of Pre-K education question whether a quality program can be assembled in such a short period of time, threatens de Blasio's progressive reputation and his ability to make government effective.

There is a way out of this potential calamity: reduce the overly ambitious number of four year olds to be served starting in a little over two months. Instead, add a grossly underserved -- both locally and nationally -- younger Pre-K population that doesn't require teachers with bachelor degrees, spaces at centers and schools, and much equipment.

To do this the mayor needs to turn to parents, the first teachers of children, community based organizations, and advocates of 1 and 2 year olds. Studies show that these children are at a critical stage in their brain development and should be laying a foundation for literacy.

One of the seminal studies about the crucial importance of this age was conducted at the University of Kansas by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, who disseminated their findings in a book and in an article, "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3." They found a class-based devastating disparity in language acquisition at this age.

By this time, an average child in a professional family would have heard almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family would only have accumulated experience with 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family would have heard a meager 13 million words.

The authors found that this critically important gap undermined the development of a rich vocabulary that is a major predictor of later school success. The study's other crucial finding was that a child who lacks a nurturing, affectionate and supportive family would be further damaged.

For those who believe that remediation in Pre-K for four year olds is the answer, Hart and Risley's book, Meaningful Differences, concluded, "After age 3, the unique circumstances for learning are gone." For the children that have missed this, "the task often seems hopeless." (p.188)

The parents of infants and toddlers, whether they come from the professional, middle, working or lower class, will need different levels of intervention, from basic information to weekly home visits, during their children's crucial first 3 years.

Over a decade ago I accompanied a home visitation worker, employed by HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) to an apartment in East Harlem. The worker talked with the young mother about various topics including the importance of responding to her daughter's babbling. Babbling is undesirable in adults but it is the beginning of language for infants and toddlers. The worker also stressed the importance of the child hearing many words and that those should not come from a TV.

There are a few other local and national programs, such as the Baby College at the Harlem Children Zone, and Ounce of Prevention in Chicago, that can serve as models.

It is not too late for Mayor de Blasio to revise and broaden his vision for Pre-K programs. He still has almost four years in office to build a quality foundation; that way New Yorkers will gain an effective early childhood education system that will also serve as a model for the rest of the country.