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S.L. District hails early childhood education effort

Program better, and school day, year both longer

Due to increases that double previous budget numbers in the pre-kindergarten program, Salt Lake City School District has made substantial improvements and additions to its early-childhood program.

In the past three years, the district has increased early childhood program funding 110 percent.

With this year's $685,000 budget the district has made some long-awaited improvements that officials say will have a high rate of return.

Ann Cook, early childhood supervisor for the district, told the school board last week that for every dollar spent on early intervention, $7 is saved on programs such as remediation and special education later on. Additionally, Cook said studies have shown increases in high school graduation rates of at least 20 percent in students who had preschool opportunities.

"It's exciting to realize that those up-front investments clearly do pay dividends and help at-risk populations more so than anything," said McKell Withers, district superintendent. "It's pretty encouraging when you see longitudinal studies that identify that much of the concern about public schools' ability to be successful is determined before the child gets to the school."

Starting this fall, Salt Lake City's pre-kindergarten programs are available in every Title I school in the district. Services are offered to parents in those schools on a sliding scale — between $25 and $75 a month depending on financial need.

The schools now offer both morning and afternoon sessions, have increased the school day by a half hour and have increased the school year to 170 days.

With the added funding teachers were also able to purchase high-quality curriculum materials for reading, writing and math. The district also provided pre-K educators with more professional development opportunities.

Along with the growing programs, Cook said this year the district is poised to start two new programs — 3-year-old outreach and home visitor family education.

Cook said the 3-year-old outreach, available in Title I schools, will give parents and toddlers the opportunity to come in and engage in socialization activities — getting them prepared and warming them up to the preschool environment.

Parents will also have the opportunity to talk to teachers about working with their children at home.

Cook said that program is set to start within the next month or so.

The home visitor family education program, also set to start in the next few months, will get experts into the homes of Title I families in the district that have young children.

Teachers will be visiting and working with the parents to give them ideas on ways they can work with their children to spur learning and development and help enhance the parent-child relationship. The program will possibly include families with children up to age 3.

Withers said identifying those families in need could be half the battle, but it is important especially to reach those parents who do not have the time or resources to help their children in the early years.

It truly is a sound investment, said Withers.

"Nowadays with increasing academic demands and the complexity of socialization (preschool) is a good idea for anybody," said Cook. "It really helps them — gives them a learning boost — and many teachers report they can tell the difference."