Everyday amazements

Teaching kids to ‘be fair’ in a world that is anything but


Dan Baron


‘I did art. I played in the sandbox,” says my 4-year-old daughter, Dina. “We had snacks–apples. I saw my friends. We read together. Sang a song.”

My daughter is telling me about her day at preschool. Dina is in her third year of a half-day preschool program at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston and will start kindergarten next fall.

As my wife and I scramble to pay bills and stay on top of things, we may not always realize just how lucky we are. We have the means to send our children to a quality preschool and capitalize on what researchers say and what we’ve seen for ourselves—learning begins long before kindergarten.

Still, as I think more and more about my child’s education, I am struck by the fact that in a country as wealthy as ours, hundreds of thousands of kids still don’t have access to a decent preschool.

That means they may not receive what families like ours have come to expect: an early education experience that inspires children, prepares them for school and introduces them to a larger community of families, children and teachers.

Admittedly, I sometimes don’t have time to think about matters like this–work and family life are already more than enough of a challenge. I barely have time to talk with my daughter about her latest refrigerator-bound masterpiece.

Then, of course, reality sets in: We don’t live in a cocoon. What happens to other children is not only worth caring about, it’s bound to affect my kids as well.

These thoughts came to mind recently after reading a study released earlier this year by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Researchers found that there’s a large disparity in school achievement between children in California who go to preschool and children who don’t (the study does not make a distinction between “preschool” and “childcare center”).

“Participation in preschool may close as much as half the gap in children’s developmental proficiencies among socio-economic and ethnic groups, a disparity that is firmly established at entry to kindergarten,” the Packard study reports.

“What happens is that families who can afford preschool and know that it works invest heavily,” says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley who co-authored the Packard study. “For preschool to reach more people, we need to see it as a public good.”

Yes, we have left many children behind–millions of them. Still, the realities of the world around us show that many families simply don’t have the resources to send their young children to preschool.

The Packard study draws from a sample of 2,300 children, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. For example, the federally funded Head Start program has been widely praised for making early childhood education accessible to hundreds of thousands of low-income children around the country. Head Start, though, is funded to reach only 60 percent of the children who could benefit from the program, according to the National Head Start Association (in Illinois, that figure was about 45 percent in 2002, according to a study by the Illinois Facilities Fund).

This means that there’s no room in Head Start for about 600,000 children around the country who are eligible for the program based on their family’s income level.

For younger children–those served by Early Head Start, a much smaller federal birth-3 preschool program, the numbers are even bleaker: The program only funds 3 percent of low-income children who are eligible for it. Nearly 2 million eligible low-income children can’t access the program.

Meanwhile, many communities, including Chicago, are bolstering access to quality preschool in their public schools, but there’s a long, long way to go before it’s accessible to all children.

What does all this mean? I am reminded of a simple piece of advice to children from the justly celebrated book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum: “Be fair.”

I’ve tried to teach my daughter to “be fair” ever since she could understand the concept–and probably before that. It’s not always an easy thing to teach a 4-year-old. “Everybody gets a turn,” I tell her when we’re playing a game. “It’s only fair.”

Now my wife and I have begun the process of sending her through an educational system that is decidedly unfair. And, of course, we’re part of that system.

Like many parents, we are playing by the system’s rule: “Do what you think is best for your kid–if you can afford it.” If that means finding a way to pay for preschool and childcare at the same time, so be it.

The day after I ask my daughter about her day at preschool I take her there myself and stay for a little while. It’s something I’d like to do more often, but I’m there long enough to be reminded of why this preschool in particular works so well for our family.

Yes, there are many factors, including cost and location. Still, as I watch my daughter greet her friends at the school, I see that what I was really looking for—and found—was really a setting that feels right to me.

Dina takes off her jacket and bounds toward a small group of peers with joy. Moments later, there is a happy buzz in the classroom as I watch children listen to a story, finish an art project and learn a new word.

It’s true, preschool may not work for everyone, I think as I leave.

But shouldn’t every family have a chance to find that out for itself?

Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at dan@danbaron.com

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