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Perth Amboy’s new Edmund J. Hmieleski Early Childhood Center (Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey)

At a ribbon-cutting for a sleek new early childhood center in Perth Amboy in September 2009, school administrators and teachers bade farewell to a rickety, century-old building, where 3- and 4-year-olds climbed steep staircases to reach bathrooms on separate floors. The new complex, the Edmund J. Hmieleski Early Childhood Center, has a bathroom in every classroom, along with stylish window designs and multiple playgrounds.

The $31.8 million center symbolizes an unprecedented investment in early childhood education in New Jersey over the past decade. In fall 2009, teachers and children, nearly all of the latter low-income minorities and many of them monolingual Spanish-speakers, settled into the new school. Each classroom at Hmieleski is set up with computers, water and sand centers and shelves of books. Teachers use the Creative Curriculum, a research-based program that encourages learning through projects. An art room is stocked with supplies. In the lobby, the staff has set up a small petting zoo, complete with a rabbit named Charlie, a guinea pig named Templeton and various chirping birds.

All teachers at Hmieleski hold bachelor’s degrees and certificates in early childhood education, as required by the state, and even assistants are required to have higher-education credentials. There are strict rules about how much time should be devoted to play during a day: 210 minutes, also state-mandated.

Building a bridge to later grades

Faced with steep budget cuts, New Jersey’s school districts are grappling with the challenge of maintaining pre-K achievement gains until third grade and beyond. Traditionally, preschool has focused on social development and encouraging children’s creativity through play. In the elementary grades, the focus has been on reading and math. Early education advocates say that one relatively inexpensive tactic is to bridge the divide between the curriculum and teaching methods in preschool and the later grades.

When Laura Morana became superintendent of the Red Bank schools in 2006, she began thinking about bringing together the different philosophies in preschool and elementary school and borrowing the best of both so that preschool gains would not be lost as students moved up. She interviewed teachers about their teaching practices and curriculum. Most replied, in essence, “I do my own thing. I don’t know what the other teachers are doing,” she says.

“That led me to see we really didn’t have a system of instruction,” Morana says. In preschool, for instance, the curriculum, “Tools of the Mind,” encouraged discovery through projects and independent play—a structure based on research about early childhood development—while in elementary school, lessons were more prescriptive and teacher-directed.

Under Morana’s leadership, teachers from across the grades now meet to discuss teaching strategies, and elements of the preschool curriculum have been extended into the upper grades, where teachers now allow for more project-based learning and creativity.

“We need to prepare our children to be successful beyond third grade,” Morana says. “We can’t leave it to chance.”

Other districts around the state have begun to mimic the idea of creating a unified pre-K through third-grade curriculum. New Jersey is considered a national leader in this new movement.

The intensity is paying off, administrators say. “You see such big gains in early childhood,” says Mary Jo Sperlazza, the district’s supervisor of early childhood education. “They’re like sponges.”

This is the thinking that led to the 1998 State Supreme Court decision in the Abbott v. Burke case, which mandated free, high-quality preschool in New Jersey’s poorest districts. To comply with the ruling, the state doubled the number of low-income children with access to public preschool, to more than 40,000 today. For the current school year, the state is spending $613 million on public preschool, up from $596 million the previous school year.

Preschool funding is among the few items that have not been cut amid the state’s financial crisis. But that may not last.

“There are some troubling signs,” says David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, which filed the original Abbott case. While campaigning, Governor Chris Christie said preschool is a “great idea.” But he also said he would not fund an expansion to other districts—a requirement in a new state law passed in 2008—saying, “I don’t think we can afford it.” Since taking office, Christie has cut some preschool-related funding, reducing the number of children eligible for services like summer school and extended day, and eliminating a subsidy that helped preschool teachers go back to college. Advocates are also worried by a report commissioned by the Christie administration that suggested the state rely more on private agencies to run preschool programs and loosen Abbott requirements such as small staff-to-student ratios.

In 2009, the state was released from the Abbott decision, based on the passage of the new school funding formula, which required expansion of the intensive Abbott preschool program to all districts with high numbers of low-income students. Close to half of New Jersey’s low-income 3- and 4-year-olds live outside the original 31 Abbott districts. Many of the districts already offered half-day programs, but the new law requires them to expand their hours to match the more rigorous requirements in the Abbott districts.

Currently, more than 140 New Jersey school districts offer free preschool to some or all of their students. Most are subsidized by the state, many through a less-intensive program created at around the same time the Abbott program was implemented. The 31 districts included in the original lawsuit receive the most money. Perth Amboy, for example, has a budget of $20 million in state aid for its preschool program this year, compared to about $50,000 in state aid for some smaller districts.

The effects of New Jersey’s investment in preschool education can be seen in rising test scores, says John Rodecker, superintendent of the Perth Amboy schools. In Perth Amboy, the number of students failing the elementary reading exams in third and fourth grade decreased by more than 12 percentage points between 2004 and 2008. In math, the failure rate decreased by more than 25 percentage points.

“I don’t think preschool is the single reason why scores have increased, but I certainly think it’s a contributing factor,” he says, noting that the district has also implemented an early literacy initiative to help young students as they learn to read in elementary school. Without preschool, he says, “I think student achievement would decline.”

Test scores have also risen across the state: On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, New Jersey jumped to second in the country in fourth-grade reading (from fifth in 2003) and has made a significant dent in the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Preschool advocates say New Jersey’s program is one of the best public systems in the country, and other states have looked to the Garden State as a model.

New Jersey’s wealthier districts also have embraced preschool. Although they receive no state aid, a handful of higher-income districts, including Princeton, offer free preschool. Others, including Vernon in Sussex County and Flemington-Raritan in Hunterdon, charge tuition for district-run programs, although special education students, as required by the state, can attend for free. Tuition is usually about $300 a month; the Sparta school district in Sussex charges only $100 a month.

In Summit, an affluent town in Union County, the school district has opened two new early education centers for preschool and kindergarten. The preschool program used to be free, district officials say, but budget pressures forced them to start charging tuition. Now, the program costs $290 a month, but lower-income students are eligible for subsidies and can pay as little as $29 a month. Despite the elimination of the district’s state education aid in the last budget, administrators are trying to expand the half-day kindergarten program to a full day.

“Early childhood education has really been shown to be one of the key factors for overcoming the effects of poverty and racism, but it’s really good for all kids,” says Dr. Nathan Parker, the Summit superintendent.

Not all preschool education is the same. Researchers have found that public preschools tend to be of higher quality than private preschools. In New Jersey, district-run programs require that teachers have bachelor’s degrees and be certified in early childhood education; the requirements for teachers in private child care centers are not as strict. Experts say there can also be significant differences among publicly funded preschools. For example, districts that were not in the original Abbott lawsuit do not have to meet the same curriculum or teacher credential requirements as the Abbott districts.

Advocates for expanding the investment in early education cite data collected since the Abbott preschools opened. New Jersey’s publicly funded preschools in the Abbott districts close the achievement gap between minority and white students by as much as 40 percent on measures of literacy, vocabulary and math, according to a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

“Preschool is a way to narrow that gap, and the gap is huge,” says Gordon MacInnes, a former assistant education commissioner who oversaw the Abbott districts for the state.

Still, there are critics of the effort to expand preschool. Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., says the argument for more preschool is often based on studies of pricey and highly intensive programs that can’t easily be matched in today’s economic climate.
Those pricey examples include a Michigan program that involved home visits and rigorous teacher training.

Teacher Maria Schloeder instructs Hmieleski pre-K students Ashley Marmolejus, center, and Daniel Quiles, both 4. The school’s curriculum encourages learning through projects. (Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey)

A study indicated that students who went through the program were less likely to be held back a grade, assigned to special education or arrested. A study of a Chicago preschool program, which was closer to the Abbott structure, also found gains until middle school, along with better high-school graduation rates.

Even advocates of preschool acknowledge that it is not a firewall against low achievement—or fade-out— later on.

A major study released in January 2010 found that by the end of first grade, children who attended Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for children living in poverty, were at about the same level as children who did not (though some of these children attended other preschools). And even studies of preschool that show positive results (such as the Michigan study) find that the differences in achievement between students who have experienced preschool and those who have not fade or, in some cases, disappear over time.

Cecilia Zalkind, director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), disputes the idea of fade-out. “If we look at getting kids reading on grade level by grade 3, that’s a permanent gain,” she says. “That’s a concrete result of preschool.”

As the state decides where school funding can have the most impact, some educators are concerned that the gains being made by students in excellent preschools will be undercut if they move on to elementary and secondary schools debilitated by budget cuts.

“If the money for K-12 begins to get whittled away, I still think the effects of preschool will be there,” says Ellen Frede, NIEER co-director at Rutgers University. “But they could be less than we could hope for.”

In 10 years, many of the students currently attending the new Hmieleski Center will enroll at Perth Amboy High School, where administrators say budget problems are cutting into the educational program. The high school, constructed to hold 1,600 students in 1972, now holds 2,200. Recently retired principal Rozalia Czaban says limited funding forced her to give up her plans to reorganize the school into academies based on predictions of future job growth.

“Your high school should be your flagship,” Czaban says. “I’m very worried. You learn to make do without, but is that what we want for our children? To make do?”

Ideally, the state should not have to pit preschool against the upper grades, says William Librera, a former state education commissioner who now leads the middle- and high school-focused Institute for Improving Student Achievement at Rutgers. But, he says, “You certainly have to make choices about where money would be better spent.” Librera picks preschool: “You do have to think about the best point of intervention, which is early education done well.”

Already, the state’s budget cuts are affecting the ability of some school districts to comply with the new state rules expanding preschool. Buena Regional in Atlantic County was among the districts gearing up to comply with the law. To reach all of the eligible children in Buena, administrators planned to construct a building with more than 20 new classrooms. But the project was put on hold last year because the state budget did not fund the new requirements.

“The integrity of our entire program is challenged by the budget crisis and reductions in state funding,” says Walter Whitaker, the Buena Regional superintendent.

A survey by ACNJ in July 2009 found that only 17 percent of districts were going forward with expansion plans, suggesting that many districts are ignoring the law as an unfunded mandate. Advocates worry that the state’s decision to ignore the expansion mandate bodes poorly for the future of preschool spending. The New Jersey Department of Education declined to comment on plans for preschool funding.

“New Jersey is at a real crossroads,” says the Education Law Center’s Sciarra. “The two directions are whether we will continue to be a national leader in the provision of high-quality early education, or whether we will backslide and retreat.”

This story originally ran in the New Jersey Monthly on January 17, 2011.

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Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for New York Newsday and the New York Times, before joining...

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