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Sandy Garrett's Column

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Our state remains at the forefront of early childhood education and has quickly become an early model for the rest of the country.

What started back in the mid-1980s as a pilot Pre-Kindergarten program changed in a major way in 1998. That year, the Legislature began funding Pre-Kindergarten as a voluntary grade, and schools began receiving formula funding if they offered it.

Moving Pre-Kindergarten into the school funding formula made it possible for every four-year-old in our state to attend public preschool if their parents choose to enroll them. Nearly three-fourths do.

Oklahoma is 1 of 9 states that provides Pre-Kindergarten through its school funding formula, according to Pre-K Now’s nonpartisan annual report “Leadership Matters” issued on May 5.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) recent annual report, “The State of Preschool 2008,” Oklahoma remains the only state where schools serve all four-year-old children enrolled with a certified teacher.

The report says that “research shows that high-quality Pre-Kindergarten can help improve the educational success of all children and by doing so, decrease school failure and dropout rates, and crime and delinquency. In addition, high-quality preschool education has been found to improve economic productivity and health.” Educators and parents realize how important an early start is.

While not required of schools, 99 percent of school districts in our state offer a Pre-Kindergarten program and 71 percent of all Oklahoma four-year-old children attend. There are now more than 35,000 children in Oklahoma who attend Pre-Kindergarten classes daily, with a little more than half of the in full-day programs.

For the last six years, NIEER has continually ranked Oklahoma first in the nation in access to education relating to the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled. NIEER maintains that our program is a national model, and we stand out for many reasons:

§ Early childhood teachers must hold at least a bachelor ’s degree, pass an Early Childhood certification test and be paid on the same salary schedule as other public school teachers;

Classes are kept small; and Curriculum is aligned as part of our state’s Pre-K through 12th grade core curriculum, the Priority Academic Student Skills.

We constantly search for ways to strengthen and broaden our programs to find what works best for children. One such option is for school districts to partner with outside groups within their community. We have Pre-K programs operating in Head Start, tribal and faith-based facilities but with the public school providing the teacher, curriculum and learning materials.

Partnerships have also been made with child-care centers that have high state ratings.

All students enrolled in public Pre-K programs outside of a public school setting receive the same services as students in a typical classroom setting.

Oklahoma’s early childhood program is a good investment and the key to a brighter future for our state.

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