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Sunday, April 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Why 4-K is a good idea
Policymakers need an education as to its value

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Mary was four years old when she entered the pre-kindergarten program in Marshall. Her parents were struggling with her behavior. She had a significant speech delay. She didn't like snuggling with them. She didn't want to read books. And she refused to let her parents touch her hair.

"What are we doing wrong?" her parents wondered.

Mary's early childhood teachers worked with her parents and her pediatrician to help diagnose the problem: Mary had autism. Her teachers created a special education plan for her, which included "social stories" - books of pictures from Mary's daily life that helped explain mysterious rituals like brushing her hair.

The teachers taught Mary how to read facial expressions and verbalize her feelings, instead of having tantrums. They took her on field trips to public places, so she could get used to the noise and bustle of other people.

As Mary's parents began to understand autism, the teachers supported them by offering advice. The intense, early intervention helped Mary and her family learn to manage her autism. By sixth grade, Mary was doing so well she was able to exit special education services for good.

Mary's story is not unique. The purpose of pre-kindergarten programs like the one in Marshall is to provide young children with a solid social, emotional and academic foundation. For many, 4-K is their first social experience. They develop friendships with boys and girls who are different from them. They learn tolerance. They learn acceptance. They learn to love school.

Despite the success of pre-kindergarten programs, some folks remain unconvinced that 4-K is worth the money. State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) recently proposed abolishing state funding for pre-kindergarten - a move that could force cash-strapped schools to eliminate 4-K. Grothman claims there is no proof that 4-K has lasting effects on children, but he's wrong.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, adults who attended pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to have finished high school, less likely to have needed remedial help in school, and less likely to have been arrested. For every dollar spent on a pre-kindergarten program now, the institute estimates that $7 is saved in the form of reduced special education services, reduced judicial system costs and increased earnings of those who attended pre-K.

Opponents of 4-K say the government should not be "babysitting" young children. But pre-kindergarten programs are not daycare. They provide a rich, stimulating environment to help children during a crucial period of development, when their brains are still growing.

Since the 1960s, multiple studies have shown that very young children who are in stimulating learning environments develop more complex neural networks. They learn better and faster than those who are not being enriched every day.

Grothman's goal, of course, is to stop the Madison school district from implementing its own 4-K program next fall. The state would provide an additional $10 million in aid to Madison, money Grothman believes the state can't afford. But not paying for the program is clearly more costly in the long run.

Madison's upcoming pre-kindergarten program is proving enormously popular. A district information session on 4-K in early January was so packed that some people couldn't fit inside the room; an additional meeting was scheduled.

In fact, Madison is rather behind the times when it comes to implementing a strong pre-kindergarten program. The Marshall school district began offering 4-K in 1993, after it received one of 15 grants nationwide from Nabisco. The mostly rural district has a high poverty rate, which makes early intervention crucial.

Marshall's program was so successful that families began moving to the village simply to enroll their four-year-olds in school. Even now, through open enrollment, families in other communities without pre-K regularly send their children to Marshall.

Families want education for their young children, even if Glenn Grothman doesn't.

The four- and five-year-olds at Marshall have been busy this month. They learned about Martin Luther King Jr.'s bid for equality and fairness. They built rocket ships and pretended to be astronauts heading to the moon. They learned new letters, played with numbers and practiced writing their names.

And when the school principal invited students to help recite the Pledge of Allegiance over the school's PA system, they each got a chance to tell the whole school what they want to be when they grow up: teachers, doctors, astronauts, baseball players and firefighters.

These are ambitions Mary would recognize. Last spring, she graduated from high school with high honors. She still has the "social stories" her teachers created for her when she was four years old, and on graduation day she marveled over how much they helped.

"Without pre-K," says Mary, "I would have been labeled a behavior problem my entire school career. Kids would not have wanted to associate with me. I don't know how I would have dealth with that kind of loneliness."

Mary packed up the social stories and took them with her to college. The little girl who once had trouble reading people's expressions is now studying to become a physician's assistant.

And among the guests who celebrated with her on her high school graduation day was her pre-kindergarten teacher, beaming with pride.

Jami Hoekstra Collins has been a pre-kindergarten teacher in Marshall for 17 years. Vikki Kratz, a former Isthmus staff writer, also teaches for the district.

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