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State's pre-K program praised

Chris Dorst
At Elk Elementary Center Thursday afternoon, (from left to right) state Board of Education member Lloyd G. Jackson II, state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple, Elk Elementary Center Principal Cathi Bradley, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Jacqueline Jones hold a roundtable discussion about West Virginia's pre-kindergarten program.

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.

"My kids that go to pre-K here, those kids stand out way above the kids that don't," said Cathi Bradley, principal at Elk Elementary Center. "They know the hallway procedures, they know me. I know them. It's a seamless transition here."

Duncan said West Virginia's approach to pre-K could have national implications in the upcoming years. 

"I'm just convinced [West Virginia] is doing it all right," said Duncan. "The funding for this program is built into the state formula. In most states, there's a line in the sand at age 5. That doesn't exist here. I just think the impact this is going to have on kids' lives long term is extraordinary. If this can be a proof point and demonstration of that, that's a big deal."

Duncan told West Virginia leaders that they should let his office know of any federal programs or policies that were hampering education initiatives in the state. Marple said she would "definitely take him up on that."

"What I heard in talking to people here was a justifiable pride," Duncan said after the roundtable. "There's no complacency. There's no resting on laurels. There's a real sense of urgency to expand the program to more kids."

Duncan visited McDowell County Thursday night and saw how a unique public-private partnership called "Reconnecting McDowell" is helping turn around some of the county's most serious education problems.

Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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