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College Prep Begins at Preschool

The most important period of life is not the age of university studies but the first one, from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed.”
~Maria Montessori

President Obama recently announced his proposal to make community college free for all students willing to work hard, or in more concrete terms, students enrolled at least half-time and maintaining a 2.5 grade-point average (GPA). Under the plan, the federal government pays 75 percent of a student’s tuition while states that choose to participate in the program pay the remainder. While middle-class and upper-middle-class students would benefit from this plan, its goal appears to be twofold: first, to make college possible for those who can least afford it; and second to lessen, and perhaps remedy, the effects of income inequality and social immobility.

This is an admirable plan with admirable goals, but while much emphasis is placed on getting our students through college, we have failed to place as much emphasis on getting our students to college. Along with what many believe is a deeply entrenched inequality in the K-12 public education system, there exist other overwhelming obstacles for children coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

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Catherine’s House Family Development Center

A study from the Brookings Institution shows that almost 50 percent of children from low-income backgrounds begin kindergarten at a disadvantage, not only in reading and math, but in behavioral skills as well. According to a study conducted in the 1980s, children of mothers who graduated from college scored much higher on cognitive tests at age three than the children of mothers who dropped out of high school. And these same cognitive deficits were just as high at age 18 as they were at age 3. With these deficits already in place, these children are less likely to complete high school, and proposals like the one President Obama has set forth will have little impact.

As much as we need to focus on providing higher education, we need to focus on the other end of the spectrum. Among industrialized countries, 70 percent of 3 year olds attend preschool. In the United States, only 38 percent do. An investment in education for toddlers and preschoolers can address and  lessen the deficits that exist well before these children enter kindergarten; and if the gap is not closed, it can at least be narrowed.

A program exists in Little Rock that, at its heart, provides that needed investment in children as well as their mothers. The mission of Family Development Center (FDC) at Catherine’s House is to assist teen mothers in completing their high-school degrees, a worthy goal considering that only 40 percent of teen mothers complete high school; a fact that, in line with the studies discussed above, puts their children at a disadvantage from the outset. Among the many obstacles facing teen moms, one is finding childcare for their children so the moms can attend school. FDC has teamed up with Early Head Start to provide quality childcare and to promote the kind of development that–through intense focus on the overall well being of these children–will close the gap in deficits that exist simply because of the circumstances of their birth. Perhaps then they can take advantage of programs like the one proposed by President Obama.

Christine Althoff

Christine Althoff is an attorney, wife and mother living in Little Rock.

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