Last Friday education advocates descended on Boyd Elementary School to listen to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan lead a discussion about early childhood education.
Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Associate Superintendent Steve Smith, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Commissioner Bobby Cagle joined Duncan as forum panelists, and responded to questions about the future of early education programs like Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program. The panelists spoke before an audience of APS parents, students and employees, elected officials and state and local activists.
For the students at Boyd, an APS year-round school, Friday marked the last day of school before breaking for summer, and having an Obama administration Cabinet member, the governor and the mayor at their school made the day even more noteworthy.
Prior to the discussion Steve Smith and Boyd Principal Keisha Gibbons escorted Duncan to one of Boyd’s fourth-grade classrooms, where he interacted with students. Then Duncan and Georgia’s first lady, Sandra Deal, took turns reading “Roar: A Noisy Counting Book” to Pre-K students.
Gibbons drew laughter from the audience when she revealed that after seeing the news cameras and security detail fanned out across the campus, her students wondered who would be visiting their school, and they reeled off one celebrity name after another.
Considering Boyd’s recent Pre-K assessment data, holding the event at the northwest Atlanta school was a suitable choice.
Data from the 2012-13 school year indicate that 100 percent of Boyd’s Pre-K students either demonstrated that they understood or had completely mastered the learning objectives for kindergarten readiness in math and reading/language arts. And the school’s kindergarten teachers have reported a noticeable difference in kindergarten readiness between students who attended Pre-K and those who did not.
These facts support the overarching theme of Friday’s discussion forum: early learning is the single biggest investment we can make to ensure that America’s children are on track to succeed in college and life.
“We have to ask if education is an expense or an investment,” said Duncan. “I believe it’s an investment. The president plans to invest $75 million to double the number of kids who have access to high-quality Pre-K,” Duncan added.
He emphasized that the goal is to radically change America’s educational structure.
According to Duncan the Obama administration wants to “find creative ways to partner with states like Georgia to increase access to high-quality early education.”
In 1993 Georgia became the first state to establish a statewide Pre-K program for four-year olds funded entirely with lottery revenues. Since then, Georgia has drawn considerable praise for its early education programs.
Last year, almost 58 percent of the state’s four-year-olds – roughly 83,000 children – were enrolled in Pre-K. But the numbers are far less impressive nationwide.
“Less than 30 percent of four-your-olds nationwide have access to an early learning program,” said Duncan.
Third-grader Imari Williams attended the event and agreed that early childhood education is critical.
“If I just sat around watching TV and playing all day instead of going to Pre-K, I don’t think I would have been ready for kindergarten,” Imari stated. “In Pre-K I learned to write, pronounce words and learn alphabets and numbers, so Pre-K is very important. It really helped prepare me for kindergarten.”
Thirty-four APS schools offer full-time Pre-K programs.