Santa Fe United Way tries to expand pre-K

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Goldilocks, aka Michelle Barraza, 4, tries out one of the beds belonging to the three bears in pre-K presentation of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” during a visit to Booker T. Wshington from representatives of the United Way of Santa Fe County Thursday.

DOROTHY N. FOWLER NEWS-SUN

At the last stop on a tour of pre-Kindergarten classrooms in Las Cruces, Farmington, Espanola and Hobbs, representatives from the United Way of Santa Fe County spent the morning at Booker T. Washington and then at a luncheon and community conversation at the J. F Maddox Foundation.

Visits to the pre-Kindergarten classes were part of the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership (NMECDP) to create public awareness and political will for investment in early childhood education in New Mexico.

What NMECDP hopes to accomplish is to expand the availability of pre-Kindergarten classes to the families of all three and four year-old children who want their kids to have the advantages provided by an early childhood education experience.

During the visit to Booker T. Washington, Danila Crespin Zidovsky, policy analyst, Claire Dudley Chavez, both with the Santa Fe United Way and Michael Weinberg, early childhood policy officer wth the Thornberg Foundation saw kids in different classes participating in several activities.

One class was working with computers. Another was performed a short version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” on a set in the hallway. Still another danced to a song about the exploits of astronaut Neil Armstrong after practicing saying their names, both first and last, loudly enough to be heard clearly and with pride in their identity.

Hobbs Municipal Schools Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Debbie Cooper accompanied the visitors, as did New Mexico State Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.

During the luncheon and community conversation, the 15 people who attended the event split into two groups to discuss the benefits of expanding pre-K education, the challenges involved in obtaining such an expansion and to make suggestions to the NMECDP team about things that might facilitate their work.

According to national research provided by the NMECDP team, early childhood education programs can improve child well-being, safety, and educational outcomes while also closing achievement gaps. An estimated three-fourths of New Mexico’s young children have at least one risk factor that impacts health, education or development, and almost a quarter are at moderate or high risk for developmental delays or behavioral problems.

Although they did not cite statistics, participants in the community conversation listed improvements in health, increased educational success, family involvement in their children’s education and early intervention when children have developmental delays or behavioral problems as some of the positive benefits of expanded pre-K education.

Among the challenges faced by NMECDP is the ever present spectre of lack of funding, participants in the community conversation agreed.

Other challenges that might not be as obvious as funding include lack of space, a shortage of teachers who have both training and enthusiasm for early childhood education, and a pervasive public perception that early education is “nothing but baby-sitting.”

Another challenge mentioned by participants is a cultural bias against sending children to school “too early.”

Members of the NMECDP team said they know there is much to be done to educate the public about the benefits of expanding pre-K education, pointing out that New Mexico students are in the bottom tier of states in measurements of educational attainment. The organization believes that improved educational opportunity at an eary age will enable students to succeed academically and that success can translate into higher standards of living when they are adults. What NMECD is proposing is an expansion that would roll out over a period of five years at an estimated cost of $285 million. The proposal would make PreK available to an additional 24,500 children annually.

For more information or to follow the efforts of NMECDP to expand pre-K offerings can check out the Website at www.nmecdp.org.

Dorothy N. Fowler can be reached at 575-391-5446 or education@hobbsnews.com .