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Our future: ND officials say early childhood programs pay dividends

From left to right, Dominic Owlboy, Paige Carlson and McKenzie Wilson count pancakes while playing with teacher Stefanie Okroi at Head Start in south Fargo on Tuesday.

FARGO -- Alma Pruneda swears by the educational boost her 5-year-old twins Abby and Hailey are getting at the Head Start center in south Fargo.

The Fargo woman said the pre-kindergarten program has helped her daughters learn their ABC's, started them reading, spurred their creativity and bolstered their social skills.

"I think there's a lot of value in it," Pruneda said.

"Basically, they get a good foundation and good habits," she said. "I can't get my kids out of here. ... Even on the weekend they want to go."

Early childhood education programs throughout North Dakota are paying similar dividends, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said.

Baesler and other education officials offered up examples of improved learning due to pre-kindergarten programs at a news conference in Bismarck.

At Devils Lake's Sweetwater Elementary School, in all but one instance, students from low-income families that had been in preschool outperformed their peers in reading. For one group, the gains were holding through third grade, records show.

At the Turtle Mountain Community Elementary School, Tiny Turtles Preschool students were edging their kindergarten peers in reading and math.

In another reading test, 89 percent of Tiny Turtles met their winter reading proficiency mark, with 53 percent of the non-preschool students met the benchmark, Baesler said.

"The first years of learning impact the success students experience later in school and we have the North Dakota data to prove those claims," Baesler said.

"We are taking the next step in creating our first-class education system in North Dakota with these proven academic results. Again, this isn't about starting kids earlier, it's about catching kids when the moment is right."

In Fargo, going from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten cut the percentage of first-graders at risk of failure from 19.8 percent to 6 percent in five years, said Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck.

When Bismarck's public schools offered half-day kindergarten, about 55 percent of students met their first-grade benchmarks, Poolman said. Since full-day kindergarten was implemented, that's risen to 85 percent, she said.

"A 30 percent increase we think is very significant," Poolman said.

Poolman is one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 2229, which seeks about $4.7 million to fund annual grants to help school districts run early childhood education programs.

The bill, like House Bill 1429, would also allow school districts to use local tax revenues to support early childhood programming.

"So far, so good, It came out of the Education Committee 6-0" for a do-pass recommendation, Poolman said. SB 2229 is now with the appropriations committee, she said.

President Obama in his State of the Union address called for a nationwide push to fund pre-kindergarten classes for all families that want their children to take part.

Obama has also called for expanding the existing Head Start program, in which the government pays for public preschool for children from low-income families.

Barry Nelson, director for Head Start for Cass, Ransom, Richland and Sargent counties in North Dakota, welcomes initiatives to better fund early childhood education.

The Fargo Head Start program has 309 children ages 3 to 5 in classes, he said.

Another 56 children are in Early Head Start, for infants to age 3, Nelson said.

Nelson said the waiting list for Head Start is at least another 300 students, while another 400 children are on the Early Head Start list.

"We have far more eligible children applying for the Head Start program than we have the funding to help them," Nelson said. "It would be wonderful to be able to meet the needs."