Preschool seen as crucial part of early education

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Bethany Sours, a kindergarten teacher at the Clovis Nazarene School, stood with her arms crossed, her eyes busily scanning a crowd of kindergarten students.

“I can definitely tell which students have had pre-schooling and which have not,” Sours said last week as she treated her students to a party at CiCi’s Pizza.

Sours works with 5-year-olds — 14 of them — daily. And part of her job is to assess their progress. She said children who are not afforded the opportunity of pre-schooling often lag behind their counterparts throughout their educational careers. When kindergarten is a child’s first classroom experience, said Sours, learning to read presents a greater challenge.

It is exactly for this reason Gov. Bill Richardson said he pushed so hard for pre-schooling across New Mexico. In the end, the Legislature approved roughly $5 million to fund the program, about half of what the governor requested.

The job of seeking such funding now falls in the hands of public schools, tribal governments and licensed child care centers — who must complete state-supplied applications by May 24.

The pre-kindergarten program continues to evoke mixed reactions from those involved with Curry County’s youngest populace.

“Current research,” said Jennifer Chavez, public information officer for New Mexico’s Public Education Department, “shows that for most children many important cognitive developmental windows close at age 5.”

Studies provided by New Mexico’s Public Education Department show that children who participate in high-quality early childhood programs are 40 percent less likely to need special education or be held back a grade; they are also more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, and be employed.

Sylvia Bean, director of the Immanuel Lutheran Pre-School, agrees the benefits of pre-schooling are manifold.

“A 3 year-old is not normally ready to read, so here we give them experiences and language development, so that when they reach ages 4, 5 and 6, it will be easier for them to recognize letters,” Bean said.

Ladona Clayton, the superintendent of instruction for Clovis Municipal Schools, said she will seek funding from the state to add an additional pre-school to the six already offered free of charge through Title 1, which provides supplemental financial assistance for low-income students.

“Clovis does have a high population (that would be served by the program),” Clayton said.

Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, who has lobbied against Richardson’s plan from its inception, is more skeptical of the new initiative. Crook fears New Mexico’s limited finances will be spent on unnecessary pre-schooling. The thought is especially troubling, she said, at a time when finances are already being stretched thin.

“If you can’t afford to put new tires on your car, it’s kind of ridiculous to put in a new stereo system,” Crook said.