at home and around the nation

What we talk about when we talk about ‘universal’ preschool

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Preschoolers attending the Hope Children's Center in northeast Denver listen to speakers at a June 11 press conference announcing a campaign to ask voters to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

Hellen Juarez was excited when she heard Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce that the city would introduce universal preschool.

“Universal means there will be open slots for those who need it,” said Juarez, a single mother of three whose youngest, a three year old, is not yet in school.

But that isn’t how things have turned out. Emanuel’s plan adds only about 1,500 seats, for low-income families only. Juarez’s local Chicago Public Schools program has a three-month wait to get in, and it provides only two and a half hours of instruction a day.

“It’s not universal,” said Juarez, who decided not to try to take advantage of the city program after realizing how much it would cost her in train fare and lost work time.

Juarez’s experience is not unusual as more school districts and states expand access to early childhood education in an attempt to add learning time at a crucial point in children’s development. Politicians and advocates alike have seized on research that says starting school young offers lasting dividends — as well as on the political expediency of promising a benefit to every voter. As they have, the meaning of “universal” preschool has become, well, not so universal.

“People end up using ‘universal’ to cover the notion that they want to serve more than just poor kids and maybe they want to open it up to all kids,” said Steve Barnett, the director of National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to serve everybody.”

In many places, including Chicago, promises of universal programs extend only to low-income families, but other cities have branded “universal” preschool as being accessible to families of all income levels. Some districts are picking up the full tab for preschool classes, but others, such as Denver, call their programs universal but don’t promise to cover all costs. And many other programs that are billed as universal fall far short of serving every student, at least right now. For example, West Virginia passed a universal preschool bill this year while emphasizing that not all children would be served for at least a decade.

Only a very few districts have attempted to do what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has done: provide free, full-day early childhood education for every child in the city whose family wants it, regardless of their income. (De Blasio’s program builds off of a decades-old city program, also called “universal,” that served only a fraction of eligible families.) And even there, where universal preschool is limited to prekindergarten, the city isn’t planning to be able to accommodate all families until next year.

That parents like Juarez can wind up perplexed about what “universal” means comes with the territory when securing preschool funding is a political feat, Barnett said.

“It’s undoubtedly confusing,” said Barnett. “If [politicians] started out trying to create a universal program and came up short, they don’t want to stop calling it universal.”

The confusion around the term doesn’t just stem from politicians and district leaders. In Denver, most news reports refer to the city’s program as “universal” preschool and many advocacy organizations have praised the city’s “universal” approach. But the word rarely appears in city-published materials, which instead say the program makes preschool “possible for all four-year olds.”

That may be because cities and states are still in the midst of figuring out what’s possible to do, right now. When it’s used, the term “universal” is often aspirational.

For example, in Denver, city officials gained support from more affluent voters by presenting a program that helps to cover at least a portion of every family’s preschool tuition, rather than fully subsidizing the poorest families.

“I could never have afforded it,” said Samantha Ruiz, a single parent in Denver whose four-year old daughter started preschool last spring. Without aid, she would have had to pay over $1,000 a month for her local preschool. Instead, she cobbles together state aid, federal Head Start funds, and money from the Denver Preschool Program to bring down the cost to just over $100 a month.

De Blasio in New York City largely repurposed what providers were already doing by funding them to extend their half-day programs to a full day. In Chicago, the mayor’s plan is intended to fill in the gaps between what the state and federal government already provide.

“In an ideal world, we’d have universal access for every child and family who needed or wanted services,” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the national policy director for Ounce of Prevention, which advocates for early learning initiatives. “That said, we are in a time of limited public dollars. The way that ‘universal’ has played out is individual communities are looking at what feasible steps are.”

But sticking to what is feasible has left some families disappointed — and unable to secure the early education that might change their children’s lives.

“My family is not the only one that needs it,” Juarez said. “When they said universal, it’s not what I thought.”


Because each state defines “universal” preschool in its own way, it’s difficult to come up with a comprehensive list of states that currently have or are working toward “universal pre-K” or “preschool for all.” Chalkbeat attempted to create that list by researching cities and states, and speaking with the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, Steven Barnett. If you see a city or state missing, let us know.

This story was produced as a collaboration among all news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”