Dana Patterson teaches young students in her pre-kindergarten classroom at Cora Elementary School in Landover, Maryland, on March 20. (Mark Mahoney)
Dana Patterson teaches young students in her pre-kindergarten classroom at Cora Elementary School in Landover, Maryland, on March 20. (Mark Mahoney)

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Dana Patterson walked around her colorful pre-kindergarten classroom at Cora Rice Elementary in Landover to oversee 14 students engrossed in independent, small-group instruction.

Three girls stood beside a white easel to pronounce small and long “E” vowel sounds. Two other students sat a desk and jotted down vocabulary words.

But Journey Norman had a more pressing concern.

“Ms. Patterson, my tooth hurts,” the 5-year-old student said Monday, March 20 while touching the side of her mouth.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I’m not a dentist. Make sure you tell your parents when you get home,” Patterson said.

This mix of parental-affection and instructional learning for the “little people” are what educators and advocates want in every classroom not only in Prince George’s County, but throughout the state.

Lawmakers in Annapolis are close to approving a study to implement universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds statewide. Some of the topics they would learn in a full-day program include how to recognize and pronounce each letter in the alphabet, addition and subtraction, rhyming and even sentence formation.

By law, the state doesn’t have to provide pre-kindergarten. However, the state Department of Education lists more than 800 elementary, specialty and charter schools that offer full-day, or part-time pre-kindergarten for 4-year-old children based on family’s income.

According to fiscal 2015-16 budget figures from the Education Commission of the States, $6.9 billion nationwide was invested in pre-kindergarten for students from economical disadvantaged families. The commission, an organization based in Denver that analyzes and researches education policies, notes only five states didn’t pay for the early childhood program: Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming.

During last fiscal year, the commission’s “50-State Review” report on pre-kindergarten shows the District invested $213 million, Maryland at $115 million and Virginia at nearly $69 million.

Children ages 3 and 4 are enrolled in all-day pre-kindergarten classes at nearly 80 elementary schools and education campuses in the District.

Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia offers the program at three elementary schools and Jefferson-Houston School that houses students up to eighth-grade. Families must not only meet certain income requirements, but a child must be four-years-old by Sept. 30.

Prince George’s has 50 schools that offer full-day pre-kindergarten with the entire program funded this current fiscal year at $18.7 million.

“They may be little, but these are people, too,” said Patterson, who’s taught pre-K at Cora Rice for five years and a total of 14 years on the subject. “[Early childhood education is] very important because birth through third grade are the distinct times they need the strongest foundation. If the foundation isn’t set, just like a house, you can’t build on top of it.”

Statewide study

Although both chambers in Annapolis approved legislation to study pre-kindergarten, each chamber still needs to review and hold hearings on companion bills.

The House’s Ways and Means Committee held a hearing Tuesday, March 21 to review Senate Bill 581, which highlights how a 15-member panel would analyze how many children regardless of income level would receive pre-kindergarten instruction. The companion legislation, House Bill 516, was already approved in both chambers.

Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore City, the main sponsor of the Senate legislation, said voluntary investment in pre-kindergarten ensures children learn at a young age, but can decrease resources in remedial and special education services.

“When students are provided high-quality learning opportunities for that social [and] emotional development, they come to school more ready to learn,” Ferguson said after his testimony. “It is the single best investment the state of Maryland can make.”

If the legislation is approved and signed by the governor, a 15-member panel would analyze various items such as income eligibility, impact on school space, potential for school systems to partner with private providers.

The group would provide a report by Sept. 1 to the state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, established in June to review and assess funding formulas and accountability by school systems.

Some of the work would focus on a study completed by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, an education consulting firm based in Denver. The company submitted a report Nov. 30 to the Maryland education officials with recommendations on what’s needed to implement pre-kindergarten statewide.

The proposed cost to implement universal pre-kindergarten is at least $675 million, according to the report.

Some of the recommendations in the document to offer “high-quality” pre-kindergarten education with about 80 percent enrollment include shared costs between the state and local school district and support of child-care centers and private facilities.

“Students who attend pre-kindergarten tend to be more prepared for school, show positive socioemotional and behavioral skills, have higher attendance and require fewer services … throughout their lives,” the APA report states. “Students who attend pre-kindergarten both save money and contribute to society representing a significant return on investment.”

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Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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