Early Education

The power of preschool done right

CHICAGO–Mesha Exum wonders how her life would have turned out without a stroke of good luck 11 years ago.

She was 16 with an infant son then, and she thought she would have to drop out of high school after finding baby Adonis wet, screaming and unattended at the end of his first day of day care. But a few months later, thanks to a referral from a childbirth support program she’d participated in, Exum landed a coveted spot for her son at Educare, an extended-day, year-round preschool that accepts children as young as six weeks and keeps them until kindergarten.

Mesha Exum takes a break from doing her own homework to let son Adonis Exum, 11, use her laptop. She says her sons inspire her to keep going in school because she wants to set a good example. (Armando L. Sanchez / NBC News / Reproduction not permitted)

In retrospect, it was like winning the early childhood education lottery.

As President Obama pushes for a major national investment in the littlest learners, a glimpse into the power of preschool sits less than a five-minute drive from his Hyde Park home.

For months, Obama’s $75 billion proposal for universal preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families has been viewed as a political longshot: The funding would come from an increase in tobacco taxes, and preschools have been hard hit by the federal sequestration, indicating lawmakers’ willingness to cut rather than add to early childhood education.

Then on Nov. 13, a bipartisan coalition introduced legislation that would improve access to early learning programs and boost program quality. Not only would states be able to apply for money to expand pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, they could receive support for earlier interventions like some of those seen at Educare, the flagship in a national network of 19 schools.

Funding details have yet to be worked out, and if passed, the legislation may ultimately represent a smaller investment than Obama originally sought. But at a time when it’s hard getting Congress to agree on anything, educators and advocates are cautiously hopeful that reforms they view as common sense may finally get their day in the spotlight.

“It’s truly historic legislation,” said Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which runs the Educare network.

Famous research by University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman found that every dollar invested in a high-quality early education program saves taxpayers at least $7 in social costs later. The long-term cost-savings from intervening are already declining before kindergarten, since the older a child is, the harder deficiencies are to repair. The biggest payoff comes from work with very young children because the more kids learn early, the less likely they are to fall behind and the better their school performance will be down the road.

Yet Early Head Start, the federal intervention program for disadvantaged children ages birth to 3, serves only 4 percent of those whose families are economically eligible. That compares with Head Start programs serving 42 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds.

“If you don’t want to put money into early education and prevention, you’ll put money into something else later,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy organization. “You’ll have more kids locked up, you’ll have more kids dropping out and pregnant. You’ll have back-end problems that are very expensive and entirely preventable.”

From a full-day schedule to more stringent educational requirements for teachers to a low staff-student ratio, all of the research-based best practices being pushed in Congress and then some are on display at Educare. The school enrolls 149 children, 98 percent of whom are African-American and all living at or below the poverty line. It is funded through public and private dollars.

With an annual budget of about $3 million, or $20,000 per child per year, the center isn’t likely to see mass replication of its entire program, but several specific aspects like a longer day and higher teaching standards could be adapted nationwide. Educare’s operators seek to demonstrate–to policymakers and the public–effective strategies to stop poor children from falling behind. In doing so, it brightens their parents’ prospects as well.

Exum is now 28 with a second son, 5-year-old Arimus Mosley, enrolled in his last year of preschool at Educare, which receives federal funding as an Early Head Start and Head Start site. The school provided swift assistance for speech delays in both boys, warding off potentially major difficulties later. Adonis Exum has tested out of speech and is on the honor roll in sixth grade at the Providence Englewood Charter School.

Arimus also got extra help with social development skills, and he is poised to enter kindergarten socially and academically ahead of many of his peers.

Thanks in part to support Mesha Exum received from the school, she went on to earn a high school diploma, an associate’s degree and then this year a bachelor’s in technology management. She recently enrolled in a Master of Business Administration program at DeVry University, majoring in accounting. Although she still works at a Potbelly sandwich shop and lives with her grandparents, along with her boys and their white rabbit Johnnie, she is on the road to a middle-class career.

The school, coupled with Exum’s own determination, has provided the family with a bridge out of poverty.

Lashane Bates, an assistant teacher, works in a classroom of 1- to 2-year-olds at Educare, which accepts children as young as six weeks. Research shows that the younger children are, the more effective interventions will be. (Kim Palmer / Hechinger Report)

“They played a big role in continuing my education,” said Exum, who wears dark glasses and is tall and thin, as are both her boys. Through the years she has attended many parent workshops, and she currently participates in a support group for mothers, all single like she is. “I had a lot of assistance, and once I was engaged in [academics], I just kept going,” she said. To give back, she serves as an elected parent representative on the school’s governing body.

Rauner, of the Ounce of Prevention, considers the Educare network “a two-generation program.” A key goal is to empower parents to advocate for themselves and their children: to demand that quality continue once their kids get to elementary school and beyond, and to encourage others in their communities to do the same.

“They’re learning what quality looks like–and that they deserve it,” said Rauner, whose husband is a Republican candidate for Illinois governor. To sustain the impact of early intervention, she and many others say, high-quality elementary and secondary schools are also necessary.

Public opinion shows strong support for investing in early childhood education, a priority second only to job creation in a recent poll, and the issue has been gaining traction at state and local levels in various places. Bill de Blasio, who just won New York City’s mayoral election in a landslide, made universal pre-kindergarten a central tenet in his campaign. Yet his proposal, which would raise taxes on the wealthy, isn’t viewed as politically realistic, and early learning remains an infinitesimally small percentage of national spending.

Mesha Exum helps her 5-year-old son, Arimus Mosley, get dressed for school at Educare, a Chicago preschool that he has attended since he was a baby. Thanks in part to support from the school, Exum recently completed her bachelor’s degree and enrolled in a master’s program in accounting. (Armando L. Sanchez / NBC News / Reproduction not permitted)

Beyond politics, several pragmatic hurdles stand in the way of every child having access to high-quality preschool and other early interventions. One is a lack of parent understanding in some poor and immigrant communities about the importance of early education. There is also a shortage of qualified early childhood teachers, who are notoriously underpaid, and of school facilities suitable for tiny people. And pre-kindergarten programs are often half-day, effectively useless for many working parents.

In Chicago, parents work hard to get their children to Educare. Located in the South Side community of Grand Boulevard, Educare grew out of the ruins of a public housing project demolished in the late 1990s. Opening in 2000, the school was an offering to displaced families. Today, it draws families from across the city, some of whom endure long commutes to get there.

Mesha Exum and her sons live with her grandmother, a nutritional supervisor in a hospital kitchen, and grandfather, a retired cook, in the southwestern part of the city. Nearby Englewood is one of Chicago’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods, but their block seems stable and well-cared for, lined with brick Historic Chicago Bungalows built circa 1940. Outside their long, rectangular home, a neighborhood watch group sign reminds passersby not to loiter, litter, solicit or speed.

Inside, on a coffee table, Obama’s photos are framed alongside members of the family. Relatives include Exum’s mother and five siblings, but all except one sister have moved to Iowa. At Exum’s urging, the remaining sister in Chicago and a close friend enrolled their children at Educare; Arimus now looks after his little cousin in the 3- to 5-year-old classroom. The school keeps a wait list of a few hundred families but gives preference to siblings of existing students along with the neediest cases, such as homeless children and children of incarcerated parents.

Educare assistant teacher Sharlonda McNeil helps cultivate a curiosity about learning in her young pupils. (Kim Palmer / Hechinger Report)

Each weekday morning, Exum and her sons pile into her navy Chevy Malibu no later than 7:15 a.m., preferably 7:10. They drive south to West Marquette Road and east to South Claremont, passing boarded-up houses, churches and auto parts stores. Their route takes them over speed humps and under Chicago Transit Authority tracks, winding through side roads to avoid morning traffic. After 15 minutes, they arrive at Adonis’s charter school, housed in an old elementary school building on South Justine Street. Adonis has thrived there, but he is a quiet boy, and Exum is unsure whether the highly disciplined environment will be the right placement for the more outgoing Arimus. Another option for his kindergarten placement in the fall is a University of Chicago-run public school that many Educare graduates attend.

Another 20 minutes and seven turns later, Exum pulls up in front of a trucking equipment shop. On a recent rainy and windy Wednesday, she carries Arimus, in a green puffy coat and Jake the Pirate backpack, across the street into a bright white and light blue building with an enclosed playground. Educare’s modern facilities, which include a wing just for parent meetings and training, stand out on an otherwise dilapidated street.

At 7:50 a.m., Arimus is the fourth child of 16 to arrive in room 106. Educare is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily to accommodate working parents, with multiple teaching assistants and aides for each room on staggered shifts and the children coming and going according to their families’ varied schedules. The school’s lead teachers are required to have bachelor’s degrees.

Arimus Mosley, 5, serves breakfast to his cousin Khiley Carson, 3, in their pre-kindergarten class at Educare. Khiley’s mother enrolled her children at Educare at the encouragement of her sister (Arimus’s mom), Mesha Exum. The school teaches parents how to advocate for a high-quality education for their children and mobilize friends and relatives to do the same. (Armando L. Sanchez / NBC News / Reproduction not permitted)

Learning is disguised as fun, with student choice guiding activities involving dress-up to Play-Doh to an in-class sandbox, Arimus’s favorite. Everything in the room is subject to a neatly handwritten label: “chair,” “art easel,” “counting cubes” and, leading up to a reading fort where a teaching assistant narrates “The Little Engine That Could” personally to Arimus, “stairs.” The class has collectively been studying clothes–types, shapes, colors, textures–based on the children’s fascination with putting them on and taking them off. There is also plenty of time for eating, teeth-brushing, napping and using the miniature toilets.

While Arimus is listening to the story, Exum is on her way to the Hyde Park sandwich shop where she works until it’s time to get Adonis at 3:10 p.m. She normally returns for Arimus around 3:30, though on Wednesdays he stays in class late during her mothers’ support group while his big brother does homework in the parent center.

The family spends time together in the evening, with bedtime for the boys–Adonis on the top of a bunk bed and Arimus on the bottom–by 9. Then Exum turns to her own schoolwork, done mostly online. These days she can usually get to bed by midnight, a luxury compared with the months when she was finishing her bachelor’s and often stayed up until 3 or 4 a.m. She’s up again before 6 to get her sons ready for a new day.

Tired though she may be, they motivate her to keep striving for the best for herself. “I want them to go far,” she said. “So I figure if I do it, they’ll go far, too.”


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Sara Neufeld

Sara Neufeld is a contributing editor. She was first assigned to the education beat in 2000 while interning at the San Jose Mercury News; her… See Archive