Coming soon: more preschool for children in the poorest districts

West Hartford — Nearly 6,500 students in Connecticut enter kindergarten each year never having attended preschool. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to reduce that number by 500 students in the state’s poorest districts.

“We’ve got to close that achievement gap” between low-income students and their peers who attend preschool, he said Thursday, standing on the playground of the School for Young Children at St. Joseph College. “This is the best invested dollar.”

His plan calls on the legislature to approve spending an additional $4 million to help the state’s 19 lowest-achieving school districts move closer to universal preschool.

In the last school year, 16 percent of the state’s 40,000 kindergarteners did not attend preschool, but the numbers are significantly higher in some of the state’s low-income districts. In Bridgeport and Waterbury, 30 percent of students enter kindergarten with no preschool experience. In Malloy’s hometown of Stamford, it’s 25 percent.

Morton, Diane

Diane Morton, the director of the School for Young Children at St. Joseph College in West Hartford.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said that existing private and public preschools have room in the fall for these additional 500 students.

But there’s a question as to what happens to the thousands of students in some of the other districts. In West Hartford, for example, 20 percent of students have never attended a preschool because their parents often can’t afford to send them.

“The stories are all the same from the parents we have to turn away: they are a single parent just trying to make ends meet,” said Diane Morton, the director of the School for Young Children.

Her school offers reduced rates to 5 percent of their students, but “We can’t afford to do any more” than that, she said.

Malloy has routinely said that the state cannot afford a universal preschool system. The cost of such a system could cost $50 million, which does not include the cost of building the new preschool facilities that would be needed for the remaining 6,000 students.

What’s in a grade?

The administration is also looking to take several other steps to beef up preschool.

Malloy and state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, are proposing that Connecticut follow the lead of 22 other states and create a statewide report card for preschool programs. The plan calls for the state to borrow $5 million to set up this grading system.

Connecticut lost the most points in its recent bid for federal Race to the Topdollars because it lacked a grading system. Previous attempts — the most recent was in 2008 — to initiate such a system stalled because of cost.

Malloy Administration planning rating system for daycare

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy: A focus on early education

The state spends $225 million on early childhood programs annually, according to Connecticut Voices for Children. Whether all 4,231 programs will be required to be graded has not been determined. It is also expected to take a few years before the system is in place, officials said.

Better teachers, better students

The state also lost major points in its Race to the Top application for not having a strong plan to bolster the education requirements of preschool teachers.

Malloy’s plan does not increase the education requirements of teachers in the programs the state funds, but it does offer a new $3 million pot of money each year to send teachers to workshops and college.

“We are ensuring quality,” Pryor said.

State law will require some of the teachers in programs that receive state money to have at least an associate’s degree by 2015.

The state spends $100 million a year through the Care 4 Kids program to pay for day care for 21,000 children each month so their parents can go to work but these program don’t require an education component.

Malloy’s plan will offer early education courses to those providers who are interested.

“We need to get an education component to our home day care providers,” said Harriet Feldlaufer, head of Teaching and Learning at the State Department of Education. “This will help do that.”

All these initiatives, Malloy said, are aimed at making sure students aren’t starting behind when they enter kindergarten. An assessment of incoming kindergarteners last school year shows almost 25 percent are in need of a large degree of literacy and language instruction to catch up to their classmates.

“Until that number is zero we still have much work to do,” Malloy said.