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Which city has the best public preschools in America? Laila Webb, 5 and Reezahnny Veiga Rodrigues, 5, add to the model of their home city they and their classmates have built in their Russell Elementary preschool classroom. Reezahnny is especially keen on showing visitors the traffic jam she has added. This is the second story in a series exploring the current state of America’s preschools.
BOSTON — On the ground floor of Russell Elementary School in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston one February morning, three teachers supervised 20 students in what is considered one of the best free, public preschool programs in the country. Sitting on a bright rug in a cozy classroom, 4- and 5-year-old students discussed how the letter M looks a lot like the letter W. Judging by their looks of concentration, this was a tricky point. Students scattered to different areas of the room, to create capes out of donated fabric in the art section, build the city of Boston out of blocks in the block section, illustrate their own books in the writing section, sketch some yellow daffodils in the science section, and play house in the make-believe section. Kids tell parents on Saturday that they want to go to school. If we were drilling them and doing worksheets, they wouldn’t be saying that.
Why didn’t he use paint like we have? In the afternoon, once recess, lunch and nap had been wrapped, it was math time. Bolt scattered a bunch of shapes on the rug. Then, once again, the kids were loosed on the room, finding math games or puzzles at all of the pint-sized tables and rug-based play areas scattered throughout. Bolt and the other adults moved from table to table asking kids questions about their pursuits or challenging them to try something new. From start to finish, a day in Bolt’s Russell Elementary classroom could be a primer on what high-quality preschool is supposed to look like.
Children had free time to play with friends in a stimulating environment, received literacy instruction that pushed beyond comprehension to critical thinking and communication and were introduced to complex mathematics concepts in age-appropriate ways. 5, draws a picture of Batman for his book about superheroes in the classroom’s writing section. Boston’s preschool program, called K1 locally, serves about 68 percent of the 4-year-olds likely to enroll in public kindergarten. Marie Enochty, a program director in the school district’s early childhood education department, neatly summarizing the message heard at every turn here, from the classroom to the mayor’s office. Providing high-quality public preschool is no small feat. Only a handful of city and state programs meet the quality standards established by the National Institute for Early Education Research, a think tank that publishes annual reports evaluating state preschool programs across the country. The key elements of quality are simple, says Jason Sachs, director of the district’s early childhood education department: A great curriculum and ongoing, effective staff support.
Who the teacher is and what the teacher is teaching? Anytime we can make an investment in young people it’s a positive step for a city. Of course, a dozen other factors contribute to the program’s success. It depends on whom you ask, but the answers include well-educated, well-paid teachers, strong unions, a population willing to pay significant amounts in taxes to fund education, and relatively small class sizes. 12,450 per K1 student each year.
That helps cover a salary for an assistant teacher in every classroom and a sizeable budget for materials and supplies. That amount does not include the costs of providing one-on-one teacher coaching, improving and customizing the curriculum and making sure each classroom meets the accreditation standards of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. To offer universal preschool at the quality level needed, local funds and a revolving set of federal and private grants won’t cut it, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang said. The district does receive some ongoing state and federal funding, but officials here say it is not enough to cover everything they need to keep quality high. As a state, Massachusetts ranks poorly on measures of access and better on measures of quality in its public preschool program. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, a Democrat, tries to make up what the program lacks in state support with enthusiastic local support. It’s an investment in young people.