With so much happening in early childhood in terms of brain development, there are a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong.

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.

There wasn't always enough to eat in the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her parents and two brothers. Even as a toddler, when she herself was a Head Start student, Jimenez recalls internalizing some of her parents' stress.

For many low-income children, factors like malnutrition, lack of stimulation and chronic stress can lead to decreased cognitive functioning. By age 3, studies show, low-income toddlers have developed working vocabularies only half the size of middle-class peers. By second grade, low-income children lag so far behind on planning, memory and attention skills that researchers at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008 compared the damages of growing up in poverty to suffering a stroke.

"With so much happening in early childhood in terms of brain development, there are a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong," said Greg Duncan, a distinguished professor in the department of education at the University of California, Irvine.

The same scientific principles that make the effects of poverty so grave for young children make preschool effective, he said.

"Neurologically and sociologically, early childhood is the best time to intervene," he said.

Eighteen years after enrolling in preschool, Jimenez is now a pharmacy-school-bound chemistry major at the University of Utah. She credits her success in large part to the two years she spent in Head Start. While learning about books and numbers, she also picked up English. By kindergarten, she was fluent enough she didn't have to head to remedial English classes with her Hispanic peers. She earned good grades through school and was able to secure a full-ride scholarship to college.

"It seems silly to say because it was so long ago, but I really think preschool changed my life," she said.

The short-term benefits of preschool are highly debated, with many studies showing any cognitive advantage is lost somewhere between first and third grades. A 2007 study published in the journal Child Development followed children from preschool to age 12 and found no lasting effects in reading, math or work habits. Children with more experience with center-based programs like preschool actually exhibited more behavior problems than those who did not. A study of Head Start released this year showed, by kindergarten, children who enrolled in the program demonstrated few statistically significant cognitive advantages over their similar-income peers.

"The research casts a lot of doubt," said Joy Pullman, an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute in Chicago. "Nobody is against doing good things for children, but if we're paying for these programs, they should be doing some good. The results we're getting from programs like Head Start are mixed at best and really terrible at worst."

But several well-known longitudinal studies that followed children into adulthood suggest, regardless of test scores, kids who attend preschool are still more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, be employed, own their own homes and have savings accounts. A Michigan study that followed 123 high-risk children for 40 years after they enrolled in the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program found 29 percent of children who attended preschool were making $2,000 or more per month at age 27, compared to just 7 percent of their peers. Half as many relied on welfare and more owned homes. A similar study of 1,400 children in Chicago published in June found children who attended an established public school preschool program made 20 percent more money than their childhood peers 25 years later.

Why do the effects of preschool appear to fade early on, then show up later in life?

"It's puzzling," Duncan said. "We obviously need to do more research."

Making sense of the research

Karen Effrem, M.D., president of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Education Liberty Watch, attributes the discrepancy in research results to parental involvement. Both the Perry Preschool Program and the Chicago program included provisions requiring families to step up. The Perry Preschool Program included 90-minute weekly home visits. Parents who participated in the Chicago Longitudinal Study participated in parenting skills workshops.

"You can't separate the effects of the preschools from the effects of parental involvement," she said.

Researchers on both sides of the issue agree children's development in early years is best supported in the home through good parenting practices. According to University of Chicago research, children who grow up with their biological mom and dad get more cognitive stimulation and emotional support than those who come from blended families or single-parent homes. Higher levels of parenting quality are associated with higher test scores and higher educational achievement.

The way Effrem sees it, the government would be better off forgetting preschool. Instead, she advocates for tweaking the welfare system to support two-parent homes where the mother can stay home as much as possible. As it is, single parents often lose their government assistance if a spouse comes into the picture.

"We need a program that actually rewards marriage," she said. "Yes, we need to decrease the welfare rolls, but if you instantly penalize single parents by taking away welfare benefits when a father is involved with a child, that just perpetuates single parenthood."

There's no point, she said, in pouring money into programs that haven't been shown to boost test scores.

"I don't think formal early childhood education helps," she said. "Keeping the bond strong between children and their parents is more important to their development than anything they can learn in a classroom."

Harvard Economist James Heckman believes, though, research emphasizing the importance of parenting only serves to support the argument for putting low-income kids in preschool. Poverty makes high-quality parenting difficult, he wrote recently in American Educator. The high cost of living often forces both parents to work long hours.

"Parents need help and their children will suffer if they don't get it," he wrote. "Society will pay the price in higher social costs and declining economic fortunes."

Heckman suggests preschool yields conflicting short- and long-term results because early childhood education has social benefits in addition to cognitive benefits. Personality traits, such as perseverance, motivation, self-esteem and self-control, have been linked with higher wages. Even among children in the same family, some research shows preschool can give kids a leg up on poverty later in life. David Deming, an assistant professor of education and economics at Harvard University compared the outcomes of children who were in Head Start with their siblings who did not participate. While any boost in test scores the preschool children experienced faded within a few years, he found those who had attended were less likely to repeat grades and be diagnosed with a learning disability and more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

"Cognition and character work together," Heckman wrote. "They determine future social and economic status ... Given this fact, it is alarming that our education system primarily values cognitive achievement. Important character traits that promote personal achievement are largely ignored or maligned as 'soft' and non-measurable skills."

Jimenez is convinced that — for her, at least — preschool was a good move.

She was the only one of her siblings and 40 cousins to attend Head Start. She is also the only one to go to college. Most have dropped out of high school. Eight got pregnant as teenagers.

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On her deathbed, Jimenez's grandmother held her hand and pled with her to break the cycle.

"You're the only one in our family to push through, but you're not the first person to make this journey," she said. "There are people like you. Please don't give up."

The way Jimenez sees it, "I can't."

Email: estuart@desnews.com