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How a School-Based Early-Learning Program Boosted Later College Attendance

Black-girl-writing-homework_Blog560x292_Getty.jpgPreschool may be be good at offering short-term academic gains for kids, but a program that provided services starting at preschool through 3rd grade showed benefits for children that boosted their college attendance rates years later, according to a new study. 

Researchers examined the life outcomes of nearly 1,000 children who attended the Chicago Child-Parent Centers as preschoolers in the early 1980s. On average, children who attended the program completed more years of education than a control group of children. And those effects were amplified the longer that they remained in the program. 

For example, for CPC children who only stayed long enough to complete preschool, 15.7 percent received an associate's degree or higher, compared to 10.7 percent of children in a comparison group who didn't attend that particular program. 

For children who stayed in the Child-Parent Center until 2nd or 3rd grade, 18.5 percent received a master's degree or higher, compared to 12.5 percent in a comparison group. In this case, the comparison group included children who had no exposure to the program, all the way up to children who left the program sometime before completing 2nd grade. 

The research was published Jan. 29 in JAMA Pediatrics. 

What Makes Child-Parent Centers Special?

The Chicago Child-Parent Centers research stands out for a few reasons. First, relatively few early-childhood programs have tracked participants into adulthood. And the programs that have followed participants for decades—the 1960s-era Perry Preschool program is one well-known example—are researcher-driven, boutique programs that don't look much like today's early-childhood programs. 

In contrast, the CPC program was based at schools. (The program still exists, and a scaled-up version is in operation at other schools in the Midwest.) It is seen not just as a preschool program, but as a school reform model that focuses on professional development of teachers and principals and a curriculum that is aligned from preschool to 3rd grade. Children in the program receive lower class sizes, an intensive focus on reading and math, and hands-on learning opportunities. Parents are taught skill-building strategies and are connected with social services and other programs if they want to continue their own education. 

Another difference: Other long-term early-childhood studies often compare participants to children who had little to no access to any early-childhood programming. Critics have said that tends to amplify the benefits of an early-childhood intervention. But in this particular study, some of the children who didn't attend CPC were in other preschools, such as Head Start. And they all had access to full-day kindergarten, which was not as common in the 1980s as it is now.

Arthur Reynolds, the lead author of the research, is a professor at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development. He has been following the outcomes of children who participated in the Chicago CPC since the mid-1980s.

One important takeaway from these findings is the organizational support behind the program, Reynolds said. "There's a built-in continuity that helps you sustain gains."

But while the CPC program may look more like today's publicly-funded preschool programs, not every early-childhood program can expect these results, he said, pointing to the synergy between CPC's professional development components, curriculum, small class sizes and emphasis on parent involvement.

"You have to go farther," Reynolds said. "Preschools have to become exemplary in quality to get the sustained gains." 

Image by Getty

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