Successful Students

Pre-K students listen attentively at Highland Park Elementary in San Antonio.

Closing Achievement Gaps Starts Early

Do three- and four-year olds hold the key to closing achievement gaps and improving educational outcomes for priority schools students? A growing body of research says they may.

Visit any priority school in any part of the country, and you are likely to find educators asking the same basic questions:

  • How do we help students overcome multi-year skills gaps in a short period of time?
  • How do we prevent disengaged, struggling students from dropping out?
  • How do we help students break the cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and, in many cases, prison?

There are no silver-bullet answers to these difficult questions. Instead, improving educational outcomes at priority schools requires a holistic strategy that addresses students’ educational, social, and even health and nutrition needs.

And research shows that early childhood education is one piece – and likely a foundational piece – of that strategy.

During a recent visit to San Antonio, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel toured a pre-K facility at Highland Park Elementary School. Highland Park serves a predominantly Latino population, where one-in-five students has limited English language proficiency. Roughly nine out of every 10 students is classified as economically disadvantaged.

NEA Pres. Dennis Van Roekel meets pre-K students at Highland Park Elementary in San Antonio.

The student demographics at Highland Park are typical of many American schools that are contending with stubborn academic achievement gaps. And, ultimately, the best way to close achievement gaps may be to attack them early.

At Highland Park and other San Antonio elementary schools, four-year-olds participate in an academic program designed to help them develop core academic and social skills they will need to succeed in school.

Why are schools like Highland Park betting so big on pre-K? Research shows that early childhood education provides academic and social benefits that can last a lifetime for priority schools students.

A Rutgers University study of pre-K programs in New Mexico found that students enrolled in a high-quality pre-K program experienced vocabulary and math gains of 54 percent and 40 percent, respectively, compared to students who were not enrolled. A study of Oklahoma’s public pre-K program found that pre-K was particularly effective at closing achievement gaps among Latino students.

Texas State Teachers Association Pres. Rita Haecker works with pre-K students at Highland Park Elementary in San Antonio.

The benefits of pre-K continue after students are no longer enrolled in school. One well-known study, the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, found that individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program ultimately earned up to $2,000 more per month than those who were not. Young people who were in preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, and to have longer marriages.

Other studies, like The Abecedarian Project, show similar results. Children in quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or get into future trouble with the law.

Highland Park is hoping its pre-K program can yield similar results. By addressing skills gaps before they form, the school is taking a no-excuses approach to helping students pursue the bright futures they deserve.

“The Highland Park community wants to start early, planting the seed of college in the minds of their pre-K students,” NEA Pres. Van Roekel noted in his travel log. “On Mondays, Highland Park students wear t-shirts that read, ‘I’m College Bound.’”

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