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Volume 24, Number 6
November/December 2008

When Worlds Collide

Universal preK brings new challenges for public elementary schools


In 2005, when Boston mayor Thomas Menino announced his plan to make prekindergarten available to all four-year-olds in the city, parents and early childhood advocates applauded this initiative to add a 14th year to the city’s public school system.

Three years later, after preK classrooms were established in 50 of the city’s 67 elementary schools, educators say implementing the mayor’s vision has proved to be a major challenge. There were facility issues: none of the classrooms had running water or bathrooms, so administrators lobbied to build toilet facilities in the rooms—at the cost of $35,000 each. There were oversight issues: many of the elementary school principals weren’t sensitive to the needs of four-year-olds, so Boston established a professional development academy for administrators faced with the prospect of educating preschoolers.

Then there was the impact on the elementary schools where those four-year-olds were getting ready for kindergarten. When those students turned five, they were so well prepared that the district had to retool its kindergarten curriculum to keep pace with children much more ready to learn.

The issues faced in Boston are similar to those experienced by educators across the country as they grapple with the flood of public support for preschool education. PreK is the fastest-growing sector in public education, with scores of elementary schools adding preK classes or developing early childhood centers for young children. But adding another grade to a school isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when those being taught are three or four years old.

“At the outset, elementary schools are gloriously unprepared to serve preschoolers,” says Jason Sachs, director of early childhood for the Boston Public Schools, who is in charge of implementing Menino’s vision. “With the district’s support, we’ve made great strides. It has been a fascinating ride.”

Spreading the Benefits of PreK

Since the late 1990s, the push for universal preK has caught the fancy of politicians and education leaders in many states. Advocates tout high-quality preK as a crucial element in comprehensive school reform, citing numerous studies that show a variety of benefits, particularly for low-income students. Some studies show that children with solid preK backgrounds are more prepared for kindergarten, with bigger vocabularies, the ability to recognize some letters, and a sense of how to interact with peers and adults. Others provide evidence of long-term economic and social benefits, in addition to academic gains. Public preschool has also been a boon to working parents in search of quality care for their children.

Critics, however, question whether research findings indicate the likelihood of significant benefits for middle-class children. And they cite evidence that some of the gains of high-quality preK may fade out by third grade. A recent study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, for example, found that the state’s program failed to provide long-term benefits.

Nevertheless, public funding for preK continues to flow to early childhood programs, and much of it has gone to public school systems (see sidebar "The Many Faces of Universal PreK"). Public spending for preK rose to $3.7 billion in 2006–07, a 12 percent increase from 2005–06, and two-thirds of the children attending publicly funded preschool are in public school programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. State-funded programs in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Maryland are predominantly located in public schools. In Oklahoma, school districts are required to provide half-day preK, and by 2011 they’ll have to offer a full-day program. Some states also provide funding for three-year-olds.

“Now it’s just another grade in school, except that it’s voluntary,” said Ramona Paul, assistant state superintendent of education in Oklahoma, where 70 percent of the state’s four-year-olds are attending preK in public schools.

In Yonkers, N.Y., a diverse urban district bordering New York City, four-year-olds have attended preK in public schools for the past decade. Students learn letters, numbers, shapes, and colors, part of a curriculum map that’s linked to the state learning standards. A 2008 study of student performance on state English language arts and math exams found that 64 percent of students in grades 3 to 8 who attended Yonkers preK classes attained proficiency on the English exam, compared to 48 percent who did not attend preK. In math, 72 percent who attended preK were proficient, compared to 59 percent for those who didn’t.

At Scholastic Academy in Yonkers, about half the preK students are English-language learners. All instruction at Scholastic is in English. “We see them coming in not speaking English, and in six months, they are speaking it fluently,” says principal Taren Washington. “They pick up so much through their interactions with other students.”
An “Activity-Based” Curriculum

Early childhood educators say that a quality preK experience can lay the foundation for learning in upper grades by focusing on language development, fine motor skills, and social and emotional learning. Many programs work on preliteracy skills, teaching letter and number recognition as well as basic counting. But just how much academics is taught, and how it is taught, is a subject of considerable debate among early childhood educators and researchers. Private preK providers say some public school teachers and administrators aren’t in tune with the proper instruction for this age group and may try to adapt lesson plans they’ve used for kindergarten or first-grade students.

“It must be very activity based,” says Oklahoma assistant superintendent Paul. “The children need to be interacting with each other and [with] materials in the room.”

Even more than their older peers in elementary schools, three- and four-year-olds learn best by engaging in activities through exploration and interaction with their agemates, early childhood experts say. They don’t do well with direct instruction. Drilling four-year-olds with flash cards doesn’t work. Neither do worksheets, sitting at desks, memorization, or focusing on handwriting skills before a child has the fine-motor skills necessary to write.

Lilian Katz, codirector of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting at the University of Illinois, says that preK students need activities that engage their minds through investigation, exploration, and close observation of what’s going on in the world. She says it’s premature to focus on academics in preschool because the children first need to learn about the world so they know what they are reading or writing about.

“Academic skills need to be put in the service of your intellectual work,” says Katz, who taught in one of the first Head Start programs in San Francisco in 1965. “The purpose of reading and writing is to be able to represent what you are thinking, observing, and finding out.”

In Boston, finding the right curriculum for preschoolers in the elementary school setting involved some trial and error. “There was a tendency to push literacy into preK in a way that’s not developmental,” says Ben Russell, assistant director of the Department of Early Childhood. “Instead of watering down the curriculum from kindergarten, we’ve found an appropriate curriculum.”

The arrival of preK at the Boston schools in 2005 brought the need for a citywide curriculum, which the district purchased from publishing houses. The new instructional framework—adapted from the Pearson Learning Group’s Opening the World of Learning curriculum—replaced lesson plans that had been developed on a school-by-school basis and that did not always promote best practices for four-year-olds. The new preK curriculum is organized around themes. One week, students explore the concepts of wind and water, the next week shadows and reflections, using literacy and math materials based on those themes.

The progress made by students in preK, however, raised issues for kindergarten teachers, who were receiving students with more preparation than they were used to. For example, to teach the progression of numbers, Boston uses a “number line” to show the ascending value of numerals. Before the city’s preK initiative, the concept was introduced in the kindergarten curriculum. Now it’s unveiled in preK, so kindergarten teachers have to find new ways to deepen the approach to the concept with students who have already seen the number line. “We still have work to do at the kindergarten level,” Russell concedes.

A Step Ahead

The benefits of preK instruction in elementary schools are often appreciated by the kindergarten instructors who teach those students the following year.

School districts that include preK classes are finding that students who have attended preK enter kindergarten a step ahead of those who haven’t. In one recent study, Georgetown University professor William Gormley found that children who had been in preK for a year had a 52 percent increase in letter-word recognition and a 27 percent edge in spelling over children the same age who were just entering preK.

Jenny Dorl, a kindergarten teacher at Charter Oak Academy in West Hartford, Conn., says she noticed a marked difference in her classroom in 2007–08, when the school’s first cohort of preK students arrived. They knew how to take instruction from their teacher, behave in a classroom, and find the bathroom. They could share, wait for their turn, and be responsible for their own belongings. They’d learned to follow through on a task and use language to express their needs. The preschoolers had become part of the school, fueling aspirations to take part in activities they’d seen older children do.

School administrators knew the children too, making kindergarten assignments much easier. “The kids coming into kindergarten from preK understood what school meant, and in the past that has taken some from six weeks to six months,” she says. “And it took much of the guessing out of placement in kindergarten classes. We were living next door, so it makes it a lot easier to produce balanced kindergarten classrooms.”
Making Room for “The Babies”

Space considerations often dictate where preK classrooms are located. Yet where they are placed can also have an impact on all students in the school. Some districts place them in preK–5 elementary schools, while others are included in preK–8 schools, an increasingly popular configuration in urban districts.

Carolyn Cobb, Ready School coordinator for the North Carolina Department of Education, says she has seen preK classrooms become isolated at elementary schools. “There was one principal who told me he didn’t worry about ‘the babies over there’ who were ‘doing their own thing,’” she says. “We are working hard to break that [barrier] down.”

On the other hand, having preschoolers in the building offers new opportunities for older students. PreK classrooms can provide an outlet for older children who need a break from their classroom. In West Hartford, for example, struggling fifth graders discover they can feel effective by nurturing cranky four-year-olds.

One emerging option is the preK–3 school (see "Bridging the PreK-Elementary Divide", HEL, July/August 2005). Ellen Frede, codirector of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, says that having a preK–3 school forces the administrator to become an expert in young children. She said principals in preK–8 schools can become preoccupied with behavior issues of the older students or preparing students for the standardized tests, the results of which can reflect on the administrator’s performance. Creating a preK–3 school allows school leaders to focus on the younger students while also integrating preK classrooms into the entire school, Frede notes. Professional development at a preK–3 school can also be more focused on early childhood development.

“I have been in schools where the preK students get marched down to the auditorium for a presentation on drug abuse or the children are sent down to the cafeteria for lunch,” she says. “That’s inappropriate.”

Educating Principals

Finding ways to educate principals about the needs of three- and four-year-olds is crucial to integrating preschools into public schools. Many administrators earned their certification at a time when school began at age five or six. Others moved up to the administrative ranks from roles as, say, high school athletic coaches. They arrive at elementary schools to find preschool children who are noisy, messy, and don’t want to sit at desks doing worksheets.

Public school administrators can also be frustrated because they’ve based their decisions about curriculum and students on data generated by standardized tests and other assessment measures, which don’t apply to preschoolers.

Researchers often use assessments such as the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening or the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, on which students respond to questions to measure the progress of preschoolers in structured settings. Classroom assessments, such as the Work Sampling System, the Child Observation Record, or the Developmental Continuum, allow teachers to collect data from children in a more natural setting, as teachers observe student behavior over time and then compare it to benchmarks.

To help instructional leaders adapt to new demands, Boston created the Schott Principal Fellowship program, which in 2007 provided a year of professional development for nine elementary principals. Participants discussed the social and emotional development of preschoolers and learned ways to create classroom environments that encourage play and exploration. The principals met six times over the year and then visited the classrooms of other principals in the program.

Russell, who served as principal at Boston’s East Zone Early Learning Center from 2006 to 2008, prior to taking his current position at the Department of Early Childhood, says the fellowship program broadened his approach to engaging his four-year-old charges. He learned they are quite different from the five-year-olds in kindergarten, who readily engage with their classmates and play together.

“Four-year-olds don’t have the same back-and-forth with each other,” says Russell. “They see the world revolving completely around them. They are with each other in the same space but might not be aware of each other. It’s not as simple as you think, and it takes some adjustment.”

David McKay Wilson is a New York–based journalist who writes about education and other topics for the New York Times and for university magazines across the country.

This article is part of an ongoing series on the education of children from preK through grade 3, made possible through the support of the Foundation for Child Development.

For Further Information

For Further Information

W.S. Barnett. “Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications.” Boulder, Colo., and Tempe, Ariz.: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research, 2008. Available online at

National Institute for Early Education Research,

Pre-K Now,

Schott Principal Fellowships,