CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When it comes to pre-kindergarten education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said West Virginia is doing everything right.
"I love the decade-long statewide commitment to dramatically increasing access to early childhood education and to make sure it's high quality," Duncan said. "I think there's tremendous leadership here by example. If we're serious about closing the achievement gap, we've got to stop playing catch-up. And the way to stop playing catch-up is to get our babies off to a good start."
Duncan, the high-profile point man for President Obama's education reform agenda, rolled into West Virginia on Thursday on one of the final legs of his coast-to-coast "Education Drives America" Back to School Bus Tour. His first stop was a roundtable discussion with state education officials at Elk Elementary Center, where hundreds of cheering elementary students toting American flags lined up to shake Duncan's hand.
The topic: early childhood education.
West Virginia ranks in the top five states for access to early education programs, enrolling an all-time high of 58 percent of 4-year-olds in 2010-2011, according to a report titled "The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook."
Across the state, about 16,000 children are enrolled in more than 1,000 West Virginia Universal pre-kindergarten classrooms that partner with groups like Head Start and private childcare providers.
"West Virginia has experienced a long history of supporting high quality pre-K and early learning, most notable is our journey to offering universal access by this school year," said Jorea Marple, state Superintendent of Schools. "It is a real honor to have Secretary Duncan come to our state to learn more about our school readiness programs and our unwavering dedication to our youngest learners."
State experts on the pre-kindergarten program in West Virginia briefed Duncan in a roundtable discussion on how the decade-long pre-K program works, explaining the nuts and bolts of the funding model for the program and how the state got people to buy into the idea of universal pre-K.