Heather Rodman
Heather Rodman

As a classroom educator, I know how critically important it is for children to arrive in kindergarten ready to learn. There is no better way to set students on a path to lifelong learning success than a high quality pre-kindergarten (pre-K) experience.

Fortunately, Connecticut is on the verge of making a historic investment that will provide 50,000 more children a vital early education experience.

The state Senate, in a bipartisan vote, last week approved comprehensive early childhood education legislation that will implement the “Connecticut Smart Start” plan. The initiative will allow districts with unmet preschool needs in their communities to establish or expand the number of pre-K classrooms in their public schools.

The bill passed in the Senate consolidates early childhood services into one agency, the Office of Early Childhood, which will improve outcomes and increase efficiencies. In addition to increasing access for more families by adding school readiness slots and creating the Smart Start initiative, the bill would:

Improve quality by increasing the number of preschool students in licensed and accredited School Readiness programs and in our public schools; increase the retention of certified preschool teachers by increasing the grant payment for School Readiness programs; and Require a plan for universal preschool in Connecticut.

In my own experience, I have seen that students who take part in pre-K are less likely to need remedial or special education services and have higher rates of high school graduation. Yet, right now, in Connecticut, there are as many as 60,000 Connecticut children not currently enrolled in any sort of pre-K program. These children are all but guaranteed to enter the classroom academically and socially behind their peers.

Connecticut Smart Start will be a competitive grant program administered by the Office of Early Childhood. Available to any city or town that can demonstrate an unmet need for pre-K services, the plan guarantees small class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios and a higher level of quality by requiring certified teachers in accredited programs.

This initiative makes use of existing efficiencies and builds on the infrastructure that already exists in public schools: social workers, nurses in school-based health centers, administrators and teachers. Districts will have the flexibility to determine the program design that best meets their community needs and offers the best value.

Connecticut Smart Start also offers the potential for regional cooperation; multiple towns could join together to create a regional program. It also creates opportunities for collaborations with private community providers in the areas of wrap-around services and professional development.

In fact, the plan will be most effective if it is targeted where there are unmet needs so that private community-based efforts won’t be duplicated. What is really needed is a smooth transition to kindergarten for more children. Connecticut Smart Start is an opportunity for a complimentary approach based on effective quality public and private pre-K services.

It should be noted that Connecticut is far from the only state that recognizes the importance of an early education experience. Last year, 30 states expanded their pre-K services.

More than a decade ago, North Carolina launched their ambitious More at Four pre-K Program. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of North Carolina released a report that described the significant gains that were seen in young students across all areas of learning including: language and literacy skills, math skills, general knowledge, and social skills.

Governor Malloy should be acknowledged for making access to high quality pre-K a priority for Connecticut. Senate President Williams, House Speaker Sharkey and other legislative leaders deserve credit for proposing Connecticut Smart Start. Together, their efforts present a potential game changer for our state’s children.

Heather Rodman is a kindergarten teacher at Moody Elementary School in Middletown and a member of the Middletown Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1381.

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