The number of children attending preschool in Alaska is on the decline, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Researchers say Alaska now ranks nearly last in the nation for preschool enrollment.
At the Kids Corps Head Start Center in East Anchorage 4-year-old Christian Wright is working hard to remember his shapes and colors.
“What shape are these? Circles, Triangles or Square? What are they? Very good! What color are they? Red, yellow, blue! Teacher: Knuckle bump it, you got it dude – you got it.”
Minus the fist bumping, it’s all part of the curriculum that Kevin Moore, a teacher at the Kids Corps Muldoon Center in Anchorage, uses every day. These are experiences the help children develop the higher level thinking that creates the foundation for reading, math and science. And they’re experience that low-income children don’t always have for many reasons. That’s important because, according to the Annie E Casey Foundation, brains develop most in the years leading up to kindergarten. Moore, or Mr. Kevin, as the kids like to call him, says besides colors and numbers the school does a whole lot of other stuff.
“A range of social skills, interacting with each other, social studies where they know things about themselves and other people in the community, science, literacy and math,” Moore said.
Alaska is one of only two states where the percentage of preschool enrollment has decreased over the past decade, according to the Casey Foundation.
Alaska also ranked 47th out of the 50 states for the percent of children enrolled in preschool. Researchers say five years ago, 39 percent of three and four-year-olds were in preschool in Alaska. Today, that number has fallen to 34 percent.
Head Start serves about 3,100 kids statewide, and about 600 in Anchorage. Dirk Schumaker is the Executive Director of the Anchorage Kids Corps Head Start program. He says there’s always a long waiting list.
“We know that when you look at the number of children in poverty who are eligible we maybe serve half the kids,” Schumaker said.
Studies show that children who attend high-quality preschools have higher test scores, lower enrollment in special education and repeat fewer grades. Abbe Hensley is the Executive Director of Best Beginnings, a public-private partnership that focuses on reading and early learning in Alaska. She was a member of an advisory team that helped set up the state-funded pilot preschool program in 2009 to reach children in six school districts where there was limited access to Head Start.
“The idea was that as it was demonstrated to be effective there would be more money added so more children could participate,” Hensley said. “We had thought that additional money would be added each year. That’s proven not to be the case.”
State-funded preschools serve children in urban and rural communities across the state. and It’s been four years and state funding has stayed flat: 2 million per year, keeping the program limited to about 200 kids.
“I hope that policy makers can really prioritize early childhood in a way that hasn’t perhaps been done in the past,” Hensley said. “If we don’t do a better job as a state in helping families help their kids be ready for school and beyond then you know we’re really not gonna have that healthy, energetic, productive society that we want to have in the future.”
Back at Head Start in East Anchorage Mr. Kevin is working on comparing size with the kids.
“What I want you to do is I want you take the biggest one to the smallest one,” Kevin said. “Awe, dude you didn’t even need my help.”
The Kids Corps Head Start program in Anchorage costs around $7,500 per year per child per year. In rural Alaska it can cost as much as around $13,000 a year per child. That money comes mostly from the federal government.
The state pays about 20 percent statewide, the wait list for head start preschool includes more than 1,200 kids.