Washington, D.C, is the “pre-K capital,” “where nearly all 4-year-olds (and most 3-year-olds!) go to school,” according to the online news site LA School Report.
Why does a California-based publication care about Washington, D.C? Because Los Angeles is about to make its own investment in early education.
What makes D.C. a pre-K capital?
“Spurred by a landmark 2008 law, the District enrolls 85 percent or more of its four-year-olds (depending on who’s counting) and an even more remarkable 60-plus percent of three-year-olds.”
So on a Wednesday morning at “the Lincoln Park campus of AppleTree Early Learning, a network of pre-K charter schools,” young students are “nearing the end of a three-week unit on paleontology and archeology.”
Funding is another ingredient in D.C.’s success: “preschoolers are funded using the same formula that funds older students, teachers are paid on the same salary schedule as teachers in higher grades, and city leaders have refused to cut support even in lean budget years.”
A 2014 Urban Institute article adds, “ By offering pre-K to all three- and four-year-olds, regardless of family income, the District may have given parents another reason to stay in the city, rather than move to the suburbs, when their kids reach school age.”
Enrollment growth “has also been attributed to the quality of the city’s programs,” LA School Report says. And, “D.C. law requires every preschool to use a comprehensive curriculum aligned to K-3 instruction.” Programs are “externally monitored and accountable for student growth” and “teachers in district and charter schools have college degrees.” Teachers who work in “community programs must have an associate’s degree and be working toward a four-year diploma.”
D.C. also has a compelling pre-K history. “Long before its post-2008 expansion, Washington, D.C. was a leader in early education. Anacostia, a poor, mostly black neighborhood, was home to a Head Start pilot site in the 1960s, and city schools began offering preschool in 1972, according to a case study of preschool expansion.”
To better understand its strengths and weaknesses, the city is using data from the 2013-2014 school year, with a focus on improving quality.
“The District’s law also gives pre-K providers unusual flexibility, particularly those in the charter sector, which enrolls slightly more preschoolers than do traditional public schools,” LA School Report says.
“Not to be outdone by their freewheeling charter school counterparts, traditional D.C. public schools also have a unique program: all of the city’s Title I schools (those with the highest percentage of poor children) incorporate Head Start programming. That translates to additional family support, health services, and free field trips. Federal authorities have also given the city freedom to innovate in the way it serves children in Early Head Start who are too young for preschool.”
Results are starting to come in.
“It’s too early to say for a fact, but many in the District believe the city’s long-time commitment to early education helped D.C. fourth-graders post bigger gains in reading on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress than students in any other state. It was also one of just three states or jurisdictions to achieve gains in math in fourth grade.
“In the Trial Urban District Assessment that compares large-city districts (which unlike NAEP doesn’t include charters), D.C. students were the only ones to make gains in both fourth-grade math and reading.”
What’s the lesson for Los Angeles and other cities that are watching Washington, D.C.?
It’s that the secret of success isn’t really a secret.
Success requires a mix of steady funding, high quality programs, increased access, and flexible policies. Add snacks, crayons, and naps, and cities can have dynamic pre-K programs that nurture children and help them thrive.