North Carolina’s prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds, established 15 years ago, has produced learning gains for children, sometimes well into elementary school, a new report from UNC concludes.
The summary report, from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, reviewed years of data and annual evaluations on NC Pre-K, which began under the name More at Four. The free program primarily serves children whose family income does not exceed 75 percent of the state median.
The review comes as the state legislature has voted to increase the number of seats in the program. NC Pre-K enrolled 27,019 children this year, with nearly 5,000 on the waiting list. Since its inception, the program has served 350,000 children.
Researchers found that children enrolled in NC Pre-K made better than expected gains in language, literacy, math, general knowledge and social skills into kindergarten, giving them a boost as they started school.
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The most recent evaluation examined children in prekindergarten and those who did not attend. At the end of kindergarten, the children in NC Pre-K had better math skills and executive functioning skills, which help students regulate themselves and perform better in school. Low-income children in the program also went on to score better on language and math end-of-grade tests in third grade, compared with poor children who weren’t in the program.
The benefits were especially seen in children who are learning to speak English. Researchers found that children who speak English and Spanish make gains in both languages and progress faster than other children in the program.
Key to the program’s success is the generally high quality of instruction in North Carolina’s program, researchers emphasized. Teacher qualifications have improved over time and in the most recent review 99 percent of lead teachers in the program had at least a college degree. Nearly all teachers in public pre-K and three-quarters of teachers in private pre-K classrooms had a special license in birth-through-kindergarten training.
State officials said the report shows the state is on the right track for preparing children for success in school.
“The evaluation results show that NC Pre-K continues to yield a high return on investment for our state—improving children’s outcomes through third grade, which we know reduces later costs in grade retention and special education services,” Susan Perry-Manning, deputy secretary for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said in a news release. “The Department is committed to maintaining the high quality standards that yield NC Pre-K’s positive results for children, and we couldn’t be more pleased that the legislature approved expansion funding for more than 1,500 additional children this school year.”