Delaware preschoolers get a surprise visit from state and education leaders

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in Delaware today to check in on the state’s early childhood education initiatives and promote President Barack Obama’s program to ensure every child has access to top notch early education opportunities.

President Obama’s recently released the FY2014 budget allocates $71 billion to the Department of Education. Over a ten year period, $75 million would go toward the “Preschool for All” program to help states provide high quality pre-school for all four-year-olds.

Secretary Duncan and Governor Jack Markell visited St. Michael’s School and Nursery in downtown Wilmington to tour their early learning classrooms. The preschool received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Early Care and Education and is a Delaware Stars quality school.

The Stars program began in 2006 as a way to assess, improve and rate the quality of early childhood education in the state and encourages participating schools to reach for the highest star level.

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Markell said the program has been well-received by educators and continues to grow.

“We’ve more than doubled the number of programs participating in Stars in basically the last year and a half from 134 to 322,” said Markell. “Very significantly we’ve increased the percentage of children with high needs that are in the highest quality Stars programs from five percent to 33 percent just in a couple of years.”

Duncan was also on hand for the state’s unveiling of its new Strategic Plan for a Comprehensive Early Childhood System which aims to better prepare children for kindergarten.

“Nationwide, fewer than three in ten four-year-olds today are enrolled in high quality preschool programs,” explained Duncan. “And, we know that on average, children from low income families start kindergarten 12-14 months behind their peers in language development and pre-reading.”

The goals for the system include:

-A Healthy Start for All Children

-High-Quality Early Childhood Programs and Professionals

-An Aligned and Effective Early Learning System, Birth through Third Grade

-Sustained System Improvement

Governor Markell explained that starting children on the right education path during the earliest years of their lives helps set them up for the future.

“The research on brain development has proven that getting it right the first time between the critical ages of birth to five is the most efficient, the most cost efficient, and most effective way to set a child up for lifelong success,” said Markell. “If we miss this window of opportunity in a child’s early years we spend too much time, we spend too much money playing with what Secretary Duncan called ‘catch up’ later on.”

Duncan called the programs an investment in education, communities and the nation.

“In the near term, high quality preschool reduces placements in special education, it reduces grade retention, it boosts graduation rates and in the long term, high quality preschools both increase the odds of holding a job and decreases crime and teenage pregnancy,” he said.

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