In Our View: Getting an Early Start

Local program appears to be beneficial to both students and teachers

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All manner of quaint, feel-good names have been assigned to educational programs and reform efforts over the years. There's Head Start. And Running Start. And No Child Left Behind, as if some monicker could express the importance of educating future generations.

But regardless of the style inherent in the names, the substance of the Jump Start Kindergarten program in the Vancouver Public Schools district is worth examining. Bringing incoming kindergartners into schools ahead of the actual school year is proving to be an opportunity for youngsters to land on firm educational footing prior to the turbulence of September.

As detailed recently in The Columbian by reporter Susan Parrish, Jump Start Kindergarten is being used this month at 14 VPS elementary schools. Students spend 2.5 hours a day in "school," nailing down some of the basics that help them prepare for kindergarten. Last year, 638 students participated, and the program has been expanded this time around.

The program, which involves 14 teachers, is funded by Title I federal money geared for low-income students, in addition to some district money. A grant of $100,000 from the Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools allowed for the expansion of Jump Start Kindergarten this year.

There's little doubt that early education provides immediate benefits in preparing children to learn in a school environment. As program coordinator Effie Triol told The Columbian, "We've added 17 days to the 180-day school year, giving those kids almost an extra month of school. We saw the benefits in student achievement and attendance last year."

And kids who participate in Jump Start Kindergarten are nearly twice as likely to be at the early literacy benchmark at the beginning of the school year compared with those who didn't participate. That can be crucial. Parrish reported that students from low-income backgrounds enter kindergarten with a listening vocabulary of 3,000 words, as opposed to 20,000 words for students from middle-income households.

But there remains an ongoing debate about the long-term benefits of such programs. Head Start, the country's most expansive education program for 3- and 4-year-olds, has come under fire from critics suggesting that its short-term gains are mitigated over time — and therefore it does not represent a wise use of resources.

W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, lightly disputes some of those assertions. "The most accurate conclusion is that Head Start produces modest benefits including some long-term gains for children," he wrote in a piece for The Washington Post.

The Obama administration has identified early education as a priority, and we agree that it is crucial to the future of the country. For those who scoff at providing intensive educational programs for low-income children, we offer this assertion: Either pay for education now or pay later for people who are unable to fend for themselves because of a lack of education. Early education programs are an investment in the future for the children most in need of such programs.

As with any governmental endeavor, empirical data must be collected and used to assess the effectiveness of the program. But, locally, we'll leave it to the people in the trenches to assess the usefulness of Jump Start Kindergarten.

"Last year," said Triol of Vancouver Public Schools, "teachers told me how much easier it was, with less crying and kids ready to learn. These kids are ready to start on the first day of school."

That makes for a feel-good story for both students and teachers.