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Levy Plan To Invest In Future, Expand Preschool Programs

All this week WOSU has been taking a critical look at the Columbus Schools levy. If Columbus school district voters OK a tax increase on November 5, thousands more four year olds could be headed to pre-school. In the latest segment of our series, WOSU looks at cost and benefits of a district-wide expansion of pre-school. Reformers on Mayor Coleman's education commission say the surest way to boost long-term overall student success is to make sure children are ready for kindergarten. Leaders promise to spend $8.5 million of the levy to pay for additional more pre-school classes. Classes like the ones at Maize Elementary School in the Northland area. The Columbus elementary school has three pre-school classes for children with special needs. The curriculum is top heavy with reading readiness and math. On a recent week-day morning, principal Nikki Henry called a school wide assembly to take part in a national project called “Read for the Record,â€? a national program to promote literacy. Henry brought in a staffer dressed in a cow costume, a local librarian and a school administrator to read aloud to the students from the book OTIS. The story unfolds on a small farm. “This is a nice story about friendship and about helping one another. And I hope that everybody takes the lessons of the book to heart and are really trying to be kind to their friends and help one another,â€? Henry told the students. After the assembly, students visit a calf brought to the school playground by local members of the Farm Bureau. Henry says the assembly program and the visit by a calf engage more children in reading and help them retain the lesson. At Maize, 75 percent of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders read at grade level. Henry says earlier intervention in preschool will boost those achievement numbers. Are reading levels tracked during the year by the administration? “Oh yes! Oh yes. I mean we're always looking at data and sitting down in our groups," Henry said.

"Our grade levels sit in groups. They look at the data. They talk about, you know, how can we intervene with certain students. We have an intervention period. I mean we do a lot of things here to help some of our students who may be struggling readers.�

The levy proposal promises a quality Pre-K experience for all district children by School officials have not disclosed what they mean by “quality experienceâ€? and they admit $8.5 million dollars likely is not enough to pay for universal Pre-K classes. And Interim Superintendent Dan Good says right now there's not enough room in district buildings. “Would we be able to educate all four year olds in a pre-kindergarten classroom housed in one of our 114 buildings. The answer is no. We wouldn't have capacity. But that was never our commitment," Good said. Good promises to think creatively when it comes to early childhood education.

“We need to stop thinking in terms of, again, our bricks and mortar. But think in terms of the boundaries, of boundaries of Columbus, the city," Good said.

In addition to adding some pre-school sites at current school buildings, the levy plan calls for an advisory panel to identify a list of private pre-school operators who could then contract with the schools to get the four year olds into class. But levy opponents question the need for expanded Pre-K. The head of a group against the levy, Jonathan Beard says says the district should concentrate on boosting achievement among it's K-12 classes before asking voters for more money.

“You know, we've got to ask ourselves is Pre-K really what we need to focus on. We're not educating kids K-12. Why do we add a 13th. Let's do what we need to do and do that well before we stretch ourselves any further,â€? Beard said.

National studies on the value of pre-school education suggest the debate will continue. Research published in 2012 by the non-profit Rand Corporation concludes pre-school results in more positive "life outcomes," but found less evidence of what it calls "significant" educational impact.