The other day, when my curious three-and-a half year old granddaughter asked her mother a question, she was told that she could read to find the answer. The curly-haired cherub answered sweetly but matter-of-factly, “You know I can’t read.” But she does love books, and I bet this time next year she’ll be reading on her own, because she’ll be in pre-school – along with thousands of other little Vermonters.
And while experts say ten hours of early childhood education is not enough, it’s a step forward for the state and for kids. But working parents, especially, will need to do their homework to find a high quality pre-K program that dovetails with childcare during the rest of the day. If there are two locations, transportation becomes, for some, an issue.
Fortunately, we've learned that in some public schools are offering pre-school beyond the ten-hour minimum, and some private programs qualify for the state’s seal of approval, and therefore funding, through a rating program called the Step Ahead Recognition System, or STars. The fraction of childcare providers earning top grades - four or five stars - has grown, according to data from the Agency of Education, from roughly five and a half percent in 2007 to nearly 25 percent in 2014. But that’s still not ideal.
One obstacle is that in order to get enough stars to qualify for the new state subsidy, a child care program must have a licensed early childhood educator on site at least part of the time. It’s not a high bar, really, but it can be difficult to reach, because too many child care workers are poorly paid, and lack the time or money for professional development. A color-coded map on the website of Building Bright Futures, Vermont’s early childhood advisory council, shows the pockets where the highest ranked childcare is found, and they are few and far between.
So now that we’ve taken the important step of funding at least some pre-K for three and four year olds, we need to take a hard look at the qualifications of teachers who provide it - and help them get better at what they do. Many I’ve met are dedicated, but need more training.
Neuroscience now tells us that the brain develops most rapidly during the first three years of life. So our youngest pre-schoolers really need and deserve gifted teachers. And we need to train those influential adults fully, and pay them better, not just in some towns, but in all of them.