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Pre-K: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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One of my favorite rules at the Sabot pre-school -- and there weren't many other than "be kind" and "put away your toys" — was this: If you wanted to go outside when it wasn't playground time, you had to convince a buddy to go along.

That blend of independence and responsibility permeated the environment in one of my daughter's earliest learning settings. The belief that young children could be encouraged to develop sound thinking came straight from Peg Spangenthal, Sabot's director at the time.

Recently, on the morning Gov. Tim Kaine was announcing his initiative to expand pre-K education in Virginia, I sought out Peg to hear what she thought.

As one of the early warriors for quality day care and preschool programs in Virginia, she was there when the movement started to take wing in the 1980s, during the administrations of former Gov. Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles, and there when it floundered on the culture wars in the 1990s.

The low point may have been a 32-page report in 1996 alleging a bid-rigging conspiracy involving the Virginia Council on Child Day Care and Early Childhood Programs. The report warned then-Gov. George Allen of nefarious attempts to "form the minds of our young children with a radical ideology before they enter public schools."

State Auditor Walter Kucharski punctured the bid-rigging theory, and almost anyone could detect the paranoid streak in accusing early childhood specialists of mind-control fantasies (or homosexual agendas).

Still, Allen allowed the council to fade from existence.

Now, thanks to Kaine, high-quality pre-K is back on the agenda — not with as big a splash as the governor promoted in his campaign, but in a way that has a realistic shot in what looks to be a year of budget constraints.

"I feel very good about the fact that finally this is happening," Peg told me. Now 81, she's far removed from the eight-year stretch beginning in 1987 when she chaired the Virginia Child Day-Care Council, which reviews licensing standards. But she's as sharp as ever in arguing for the importance of quality child care and guidance in the early years.

Part of Kaine's goal is to create a voluntary quality rating system that will guide parents and encourage providers to follow sound practices. I hope whoever develops those measures incorporates a philosophy that's akin to Peg's.

"More time is wasted — and I've been in a lot of day-care centers — in getting your coats on and getting in line and staying in line to go outside or go to the bathroom," she said.

Lining up was not a priority at Sabot. Blending training in the British Infant School Model and the work of Jean Piaget, Peg held that young children "need a lot of opportunity to explore for themselves. They need exposure to a lot of materials and ideas and the freedom to put whatever information they collect into their own form of expression."

"They need leadership and guidance, but they don't need direct instruction," she said. While it's fine for children to be exposed to numbers and letters at ages 3 or 4, formal training can — should — wait for a later time.

Kaine seemed to grasp that difference in announcing his plan. "Pre-K is not an achievement environment; it's a preparation environment," he said.

However the quality rating system works, rigid, punitive programs shouldn't qualify. Encouraging, stimulating programs should. A push for improved teacher training is a welcome part of the plan.

"Nothing's going to be perfect," Peg said. She hopes for "a solid enough beginning that it will go forward rather than be stagnated" once Kaine leaves office in 2-1/2 years. She's seen what Virginia's revolving door on governors can do.

Early childhood education is an idea whose time has come. Now, the goal is to make it the best it can be. S

Margaret Edds is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot, based in Richmond. E-mail her at margaret.edds@pilotonline.com. This article first appeared in The Virginian Pilot.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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