Kids In Maryland’s Poorest County Are Among The State’s Most Prepared For Kindergarten. Here’s Why.

By Martin Austermuhle

(Originally published May 8, 2019, by WAMU: American University Radio

Located on the southern end of the peninsula that separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, Maryland’s sparsely populated Somerset County is the state’s poorest. Household income in 2014 was $36,106 according to the U.S. Census, less than half that of the counties at the other end of the spectrum, including Calvert ($91,993), Montgomery ($97,873) and Howard ($108,503).

But on Maryland’s 2018 kindergarten readiness assessment, Somerset County surpassed most of the state. It came in third among counties at 60 percent, 13 points ahead of the state average. And it was also a jump from four years prior, when 47 percent of children in Somerset County were found to be ready for kindergarten.

Somerset school officials say the reason for the performance is simple: The county offers universal, full-day pre-K to all 4-year-olds.

“It makes a huge difference. What we see is those children who went to pre-K definitely do better than those children who did not,” says Karen Karten, the early education coordinator for the county’s public schools, talking about the jump to kindergarten.

Somerset County is one of only four jurisdictions in Maryland that offers universal pre-K to 4-year-olds, although that is slowly changing. Under a 10-year-plan hatched by a state education commission and funded in part by the General Assembly this year, more children in Maryland will start getting access to free preschool.

The goal, supporters say, is to better prepare children for school and to level the playing field for kids from low-income families who may have fewer educational opportunities early on.

“Brain development is so rapid between birth and three that about 90 percent of the brain’s development happens in the first years of life,” says Steven Hicks, the assistant state superintendent for the Division of Early Childhood Development at the Maryland State Department of Education. “That’s a critical window we have to be addressing.”

Bringing Pre-K To Somerset County

Karten says Somerset County started phasing in universal pre-K over the last four years, using a mix of local and state money. And while other jurisdictions in Maryland that offer some free pre-K limit it to low-income children, Karten says Somerset made the decision to open the program to all families, regardless of income.

The program is available at the county’s three public schools and is led by 11 teachers, with each classroom serving at maximum 20 kids.

“We make sure that we have a play-based approach. We understand how children learn. So just because it’s a full-day program doesn’t mean that they’re sitting at desks like older children,” Karten says. “They’re playing in the classroom, but they’re learning too. We have a curriculum, and we implement a reading and math curriculum, so we make sure they’re enrolled in a school program. They get a 45-minute nap because it’s a full day.”

Karten says one of the biggest challenges was letting parents know that pre-K is actual school and they have to treat it as such.

“You put all this effort into pre-K, and parents need to know that their children need to attend every day. When you think of it as babysitting for your kids as opposed to being in school, then it makes that shift from ‘Well I can keep them out, they don’t want to go today,’ to ‘No, this is a school, we get up and we go to school.’ That was a very big adjustment for our community, understanding that this needs to be taken seriously,” she says.

That’s an issue Hicks says applies statewide.

“Chronic absenteeism is something we have to address,” he says.

Are There Lessons To Be Learned From Somerset County?

Karten says she’s excited that Somerset County implemented universal, full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds ahead of much of the state, and is pleased that the results seem to bear out the investment.

But she’s reluctant to say this could implemented in the same way in other jurisdictions across Maryland.

“The reason why we can do that in this county is because we put this as a priority, but another is because we are small. A lot of counties don’t have the space for all their pre-K students. We have about 85 percent of our kindergarten students enrolled in pre-K as prior care. We’ve got about 200 kids in pre-K,” she says.

Other advocates agree that size matters. Montgomery County — which operates the state’s largest school district — is home to many more 4-year-olds. Even if it had all the funding available to it today, Montgomery County would not likely be able to overcome space constraints and a shortfall in the number of educators needed to staff classes for a universal pre-K program. That means expansion will have to be gradual.

Hicks also says that expanding towards universal pre-K will require a mix of public schools and private providers (like child care operators), better known as a “mixed delivery system.” And expansion can’t happen too fast, because if it does, it could leave private providers serving only infants and toddlers — which are significantly more costly to care for.

“As we expand, I am hopeful the local school systems will embrace a mixed delivery system. There are these private providers and faith-based providers that have space available to serve 3- and 4-year-olds,” he says.

To that end, this week the state awarded $26.6 million worth of grants for pre-K expansion. The grants are going to 19 school systems and 31 community-based providers, and will help expand universal pre-K offerings for low-income 4-year-olds and extend half-day programs to full-day.

Hicks — who served in the Obama administration and as executive director of Ready At Five prior to joining Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration in early 2018 — says he sees momentum building across the country for expanding pre-K.

“We’re seeing it in red states, blue states, all over the country,” he says. “Governors are understanding education doesn’t just start in kindergarten.”

Karten says she sees interest building within Maryland, and is happy to see officials and residents engage on an issue she’s been involved with for decades.

“It feels like this is something I’ve known all along, and people are finally coming to the party and they finally understand that early childhood is important,” she says. “That’s exciting.”