Guest Opinions

Early childhood education: Too many Idaho children are starting school too far behind

Students enter the pre-K program at Hawthorne Elementary School in Boise in 2015. Boise School District and its partners have successfully piloted preschool classes in some schools.
Students enter the pre-K program at Hawthorne Elementary School in Boise in 2015. Boise School District and its partners have successfully piloted preschool classes in some schools. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

I’ve been a teacher in Southwest Idaho’s Kuna School District for 15 years and have spent most of my career teaching kindergarten. As many know, kindergarten teachers are on the front lines of education in Idaho. We understand the importance of making sure each child starts off loving school and feels a sense of pride in their accomplishments. We are also challenged with ensuring that our children are ready to move forward with the skills they need to be successful learners.

But it is time to have a serious conversation. Each year my colleagues and I are seeing more and more students entering kindergarten without the basic foundational skills they need to be successful in school. Too many lack the ability to hold a pencil, use a pair of scissors or recognize their name. For an academic example, in my 2016 class, only four students out of 17 entered with the knowledge to recognize more than six letters in the alphabet. Difficult to track, but possibly even more important, is the inability of too many students to appropriately socialize with their peers.

To address this challenge, Idaho needs to join the 44 other states across this country that have invested in pre-kindergarten. It was encouraging for me to see from recent polling that a majority of Idahoans agree. Conservative research firm Moore Information, who is quite familiar to Idaho, recently released a statewide poll showing nearly 70 percent of Idahoans think the state needs to do more when it comes to ensuring our kindergarteners are starting off with the skills they need. Furthermore, nearly 80 percent of Idahoans believe Idaho needs to be investing state dollars in high-quality preschool options for families.

This information is helpful in moving forward because I know firsthand that too many of our children are starting school too far behind. Based on my experience and what research shows, I can confidently say that access to quality, affordable preschool options enhances children’s educational performance in elementary school. It’s a crucial piece in helping students attain their greatest potential.

My experience has also shown that families who can afford to send their child to a quality preschool program usually do. Unfortunately, many families do not have access or cannot afford a high-quality preschool program. This is especially true in Idaho’s rural communities. This situation is creating a snowballing achievement gap from Day One and has continued to challenge kindergarten through third-grade teachers to “fix” this problem alone.

Investing in options for Idaho families to increase access and affordability for Pre-K in Idaho is the key piece to improving outcomes for our entire K-12 system. On behalf of my peers, I implore Idaho to start making early childhood education a top priority. Our kids deserve an equal playing field when it comes to their futures and their role in the success of our state and nation.

Alyssa Townsend teaches kindergarten in Kuna and lives in Boise with her husband and two daughters.

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