The High-Speed Preschool Experiment

In some districts, free summer “crash courses” are trying to meet the needs of students who can’t afford to attend traditional pre-K programs.

A kindergarten teacher reads to students.
Miami Elementary School kindergarten teacher Ashleigh McCord reads to students during pre-K camp. (Patrick Wall / The Hechinger Report)

When they arrived, many of the soon-to-be kindergarteners in Miami Elementary School’s summer preschool program in Lafayette, Indiana, could not spell their names or grip a pencil. They hadn’t learned to line up silently or raise their hands. At lunch, a few tried slurping their applesauce through straws.

Many working-class families in this manufacturing city across the Wabash River from Purdue University cannot afford to send their children to private pre-kindergarten, nor can they rely on government-funded programs—like Head Start and subsidized childcare—which serve a fraction of eligible children. The city resembles Indiana as a whole, where 60 percent of children miss out on preschool.

So instead, some 275 Lafayette families sent their 4-and 5-year-olds to schools across the district for the free, month-long summer program, which aims to cram the basics of preschool into 20 half-day sessions.

By the final class on August 1, one week before the start of school, the Miami Elementary students were walking in a single-file line to the cafeteria, writing their names, counting to 100 and reciting the alphabet. Having finally arrived at the letter Z, the 19 children who were present that day listened to a story about Zachary Zimmerman, colored in zebras, created paper zoos, and scrawled the zigzagging letter on strips of whiteboard.

Katherine Diaz Cortez, a 5-year-old wearing a white twirly skirt and matching bow, waved a Z-filled whiteboard high above her head. “I did it!” she said.

Armed with research showing that preschool delivers long-term benefits, particularly to low-income students, states more than doubled their spending on pre-K between 2006 and 2016, when total spending reached $7.4 billion. Yet spending varies widely by state and over half of 3- and 4-year-olds nationally continue to skip preschool entirely, leaving them ill-prepared for the increasing rigors of kindergarten.

In Indiana, which only recently began to pay for poor children to attend pre-K in a handful of counties, just 3 percent of children go to state-funded preschool. (About 8 percent of 4-year-olds are served by Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor families, which enrolls a similar share of students nationally.) Throughout the U.S., children from low-income families are less likely than their advantaged peers to go to preschool and more prone to spend their days at home or with relatives until kindergarten begins.

Faced with this pre-K shortage, districts across the country have turned to a cheaper, briefer alternative: preschool crash courses like the one in Lafayette. They vary in length, focus, and funding streams, but most are free for families, take place during the summer, and target rising kindergarteners without any school experience, along with their parents.

The programs allow children to practice classroom routines and start to develop some pre-reading skills, like letter recognition, while their parents might learn about read-aloud strategies and how children’s brains develop. Some small studies suggest they may boost students’ later performance in school.

Yet the long-term benefits of preschool—including higher high-school graduation rates and job salaries, better self-control, and fewer arrests—are linked to quality programs that students attended for a year or more. Bite-sized pre-K programs like Lafayette’s, experts say, are simply too short to close the skills-gap that leaves poor students nearly a year behind their wealthier peers when they start kindergarten.

Summer pre-K may cut down on first-day jitters and time spent rehearsing classroom procedures, said W. Steven Barnett, the senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Two students sit at a desk, coloring.
Soon-to-be-kindergarteners Makilah Traylor (left) and Kimber Runkle color in zebra worksheets highlighting the letter Z. (Patrick Wall)

“But if we’re talking about the problem that half the achievement gap is set in place before kids walk through the kindergarten door,” he said, “you’re not going to close that or even make any kind of dent in it with a few weeks in the summer.”

The programs, which have names like Kindergarten Countdown, Jumpstart, or Boot Camp, last from a few days to six weeks and typically take place in the schools students will attend that fall. Funding comes from school-district budgets, state tax dollars, or grants and donations funneled through nonprofits like the United Way, which runs programs in Indiana and several other states. Some of these abbreviated preschools began as recently as this year, while others—including the “K-Prep” program in Alexandria, Virginia, which launched in 2000—are long running.

A few places have tweaked the model. In Lancaster County, South Carolina, teachers travel to disadvantaged students’ homes five times during the summer before kindergarten, giving math and reading lessons and getting to know their families. In Phoenix, parents join their children for a seven-session “boot camp” held at library branches and community centers. During one recent hour-long class, kids and parents read a book about chameleons and then dyed coffee filters different colors.

Vicky Vela-Thai, a former kindergarten teacher who designed the program for the Phoenix Public Library, said many families enroll in it after they are put on waitlists for full-length preschool programs. “Some families sign up for boot camp multiple times,” she said. “They just take it over and over again.”

The few independent studies of summer pre-K programs found either mixed or positive outcomes.

In a Duke University study, teachers reported that students (especially girls) who participated in a four-week program were better prepared socially for kindergarten, but not academically. An evaluation of New Mexico’s 25-day summer program found that students improved in math, vocabulary, reading, and writing.

In Portland, Oregon, incoming kindergarteners who took part in a three-week program offered at high-poverty schools had higher attendance rates than non-participants all the way through second grade, according to an analysis by researchers at the Northwest Evaluation Association and the University of Portland using data from 2010 to 2014. The participants also did better on a literacy test and were less likely to need intensive reading help—although researchers cautioned that the study design does not enable them to show that these outcomes were caused by the program, which also included parent classes.

Despite these favorable results for short programs, the evidence is clear that poor children benefit from more time in preschool. As early as 1968, researchers suggested that less time spent in preschool can mean less learning: Students in a summer version of Head Start, they found, made no measurable academic gains. More recently, one study found that low-income students made the greatest strides in math and reading when they attended preschool centers at least 30 hours per week for nine or more months, while another showed that students in full-day, extended-year pre-K outperformed their half-day peers on math and vocabulary tests. In this context, preschool camp is a paltry substitute for the real thing.

Indeed, most camp directors are quick to say their programs can’t replace pre-K; at best, they can help smooth children’s passage into kindergarten, which often is rocky even for students who attended some preschool.

Evidence suggests that students from low- and middle-income families perform better in kindergarten when their schools try to ease the transition through activities like parent orientations or teacher home visits. Yet schools serving these students are less likely to take such steps. Seen in that light, summer camps can be a powerful way to welcome parents and children into the K-12 school system.

“We’re not trying to make up for a missing year of pre-K at all,” said Nancy Hauth, a program manager in Portland Public Schools’ early-learning division who helped design its summer program, which now enrolls about 300 students—or roughly 8 percent of incoming kindergartners. “It’s almost like an extended orientation.”

Indiana has been slow to embrace formal education for young children.

The state does not mandate kindergarten, and some politicians have balked at the cost of subsidizing pre-K, whose efficacy they question. (Some studies have found that the academic jolt students get from pre-K wears off after a few years.)

In 2013, lawmakers created a $2 million grant program to support preschools serving poor families. In 2014, after lobbying by then-Governor Mike Pence, the Republican-dominated legislature approved a $10 million-per-year pilot program to award pre-K scholarships to low-income families in five of the state’s 92 counties.

Pence, who is now the vice president, said in 2014 that the best pre-K program is “a prosperous family” that can provide children with enriching experiences—though he added that many children are not so lucky. This outlook, centered on family autonomy and limited government, is shared by many Indiana voters and politicians and helps explain why Indiana was among the last states to pay for preschool. (Just a few months after those remarks, Pence inflamed many preschool advocates by ordering his administration not to apply for up to $80 million in pre-K grants from the Obama administration.)

“We are a fiscally conservative state,” said State Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who authored the pre-K bill, explaining some lawmakers’ reluctance to fund a large preschool program. He added that other legislators have philosophical objections. “Several in the senate believe it’s the responsibility of parents, not of government, to provide education at that level.”

The pilot program was modeled on the state’s expansive K-12 voucher system, which pays the tuition of low-income families who opt into private schools. Called On My Way Pre-K, it gives scholarships to low-earning families to spend on pre-K programs in churches, licensed homes, private centers, or the public schools of their choosing, so long as the providers meet certain standards. Just under 1,800 children received scholarships last year.

In April, lawmakers agreed after a long debate to add 15 more counties to the program and ramp up annual funding to $21 million (with an additional $1 million reserved for an online-preschool program)—still far short of the $50 million per year that advocates had sought. Parents who receive scholarships now must prove they are working or attending school, which advocates fear will limit participation.

Officials say they hope the program will soon serve up to 4,000 children—a fraction of the estimated 27,000 low-income 4-year-olds across the state who aren’t in high-quality preschools.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” said State Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat. “But it’s a starting place.”

In the meantime, hundreds of families have turned to free pre-K camps. Indiana Association of United Ways helped pay for camps that served about 1,700 students in nearly 80 classrooms across the state this summer.

Students and parents sit at tables; there are balloons around them.
Families watch as students perform alphabet, number, and color songs on the final day of pre-K camp this August. (Patrick Wall)

However, that funding is about to run out, said Rachel Scott, the group’s vice president of resource development. A local philanthropy ended its annual $100,000 donation to the program, while a state agency rescinded a promised $700,000 grant due to a budget deficit, she said. Now, local United Ways—which already covered most of the cost of running the camps—will have to fund the full amount.

“We can’t raise enough dollars to make up for the shortfalls of the whole system,” Scott said, adding that the state where she lived previously—Iowa—has half as many young children but spent seven times as much on state pre-K last year. “It’s shocking to me.”

The United Way of Greater Lafayette, which has run its “Kindergarten Countdown” program since 2011, plans to continue spending up to $100,000 per year to keep its 11 local camps going. The nonprofit covers operating costs like teacher pay and supplies, while the school district provides busing and classroom space.

Although Tippecanoe County, home to Lafayette, was selected to join the state’s expanded pre-K program next year, the United Way predicts a continued need for its camps: Local officials expect the state to fund pre-K spots for 100 to 150 of the county’s estimated 800 eligible children.

At Miami Elementary School, where more than 80 percent of families are low-income, most students do not attend formal preschool, according to Principal Amanda Henry. Out of some 125 incoming kindergarteners this year, about 20 went to pre-K camp.

On that final camp day, parents began streaming into the colorful, owl-themed classroom around noon for a celebration. Some squeezed into little chairs, while others stood with their cell-phone cameras at the ready. Then their children performed an alphabet song, a counting song and one about the color red: “Fire trucks are red, stop signs are red too, R-E-D, R-E-D!” The families cheered.

Afterwards, the children did art projects with their parents and siblings. Five-year-old Amilliona McClatchey showed her two brothers and sister how to craft a tree out of a pretzel rod and apple slices.

Her mother, Ashley Moore, said preschool had been too costly, so instead she and her husband worked opposite shifts so that one would always be home with the children. But she’d made sure to enroll Amilliona in pre-K camp, where she learned to count to 20 and write her name legibly.

“It’s so helpful,” Moore said. “I would tell any parent to go for it.”

Julie Grubb, one of two Miami kindergarten teachers who led the camp, said the children who completed the summer program would enter school on stronger footing than many of their peers. Yet she could only imagine how much further ahead they’d start if they were given a full year of preschool.

“I love this program,” she said. “But I wish we didn’t need to have it.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.