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Breaking out — Can preschool help children escape poverty?

Published: Saturday, Nov. 26 2011 1:00 p.m. MST

Rosa wears a dress from the costume closet as she colors. She came to Head Start with little experience speaking English.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Four-year-old Rosa is down on all fours on the stained Berber carpet of Salt Lake City Head Start, mentally picking through the bucket of colored pencils in front of her. The thoughts skip across her fawn eyes, transparent. Pink? No. Blue? No. The neck of the too-big dress-up smock she is wearing slips unnoticed off her shoulder, exposing a faded Hannah Montana Tee. Purple. Yes. That's the one. She snatches the pencil with a little brown hand.

At Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for low-income children, Rosa is learning basics: counting, colors, how to share toys. But over time, the two years the little girl and her classmates will spend playing educational games under the supervision of certified child development experts could help her break the cycle of poverty.

Like nearly two-thirds of her classmates, Rosa came to Head Start with little experience speaking English. Close to half her classmates, who come from households that bring in an average of $13,906 a year, have just one parent at home.

Because children are most malleable during the first years of life, economists hypothesize early childhood interventions just might make the most difference in helping low-income children move beyond poverty.

While the short-term academic effects of preschool are hotly contested, a growing body of long-term research suggests impoverished children who attend preschool make more money later in life than the children they grew up with. As studies have piled up over the past decade, so, too, have the number of government funded preschool programs. Besides the federal Head Start program, which served 904,153 children last year for a price tag of $7.2 billion, the number of states offering pre-kindergarten programs increased from just five in 2002 to 23 in 2010. Between 2005 and 2011, state funding for pre-kindergarten programs nearly doubled.

Many scholars maintain, though, that young children are best off at home with their parents. Backed by research of their own, preschool critics argue that the best way to help low-income children beat poverty is to strengthen families. They are quick to point out many of the studies driving the preschool frenzy were based on small programs with high-quality teachers and small class sizes. Among government programs, class size, teacher qualifications and — consequently — results don't compare.

In a bid to up the standards, President Barack Obama this month proposed new rules requiring low-performing Head Start centers to compete for federal education funds. He described the preschool program as a "critical investment" and an "economic imperative."

"The children who have the chance to go to the best Head Start programs have an experience that can literally change their lives for years to come," he said.

Joy Pullman of the Heartland Institute summed up the feelings of the other camp in a press statement released later that day: "Head Start should be dismantled, not merely rearranged."

Crucial timing

When Kaylie's preschool teacher hands her a book, the 4-year-old grabs the paperback by the binding and gives it an enthusiastic shake. The pages flip back and forth. A gust of air pushes her blonde bangs away from her face.

She giggles.

Her teacher patiently repeats the question: "Can you show me the front of the book?"

Jakelyn Jimenez, 21, used to be that girl — the one who couldn't tell the front side of a book from the back. With five jobs between them, ranging from work at a fast food restaurant to mopping beer off the floors of the EnergySolutions Arena, her parents didn't have time to read to her. Even if they had, they couldn't. Neither of Jimenez's parents, who grew up in Mexico, advanced past first grade.

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