Preschool Services in Rural Areas
How can we reach our neediest populations?
by Dr. Dianna Whitlock
While the sustainability of positive results of preschool programs has been documented, little research has been conducted specific to rural preschool age children, specifically those living in rural poverty. However, targeted programs have been designed and implemented for preschool age children of low socio-economic status in general. Since poverty has been cited as a predictor of a child’s success or struggles in school and school readiness, quality early childhood programming is one possible solution to providing the necessary experiences for students to demonstrate success in the early grades and eventually break the cycle of poverty.
Though all children might benefit from pre-kindergarten services outside their homes, preschool experiences have been recognized as particularly important among children in economic need, as these families may not have access to resources at home to ensure a strong start in the school system. According to Head Start statistics, students ages four and five living in poverty often tested 12-14 months lower than the national norms in the area of language development. Results of the long-term Perry Project, which tracked 123 at-risk students living in poverty, found higher school performance by those who participated in early childhood education services than those who did not attend preschool. These students excelled in:
- intellectual performance
- scholastic placement
- scholastic achievement
- graduation rates
In addition, those who attended preschool as part of the Perry Project had fewer incidents of delinquency or criminal activity later in life. Overall, preschool seemed to increase the quality of life within an underprivileged population.
While there have been mixed reviews on the longevity of academic gains of those who attended preschool, It has been determined that students who attended Head Start demonstrated higher academic achievement than other children from low-income families in elementary school. Likewise, it there is a correlation between early childhood experiences and later cognitive abilities measured by standardized assessments.
Rates of childhood poverty in rural areas have historically been higher than those living in urban poverty. In the late 1990’s, this gap became even greater, increasing from one percent to a five percent difference between the two groups. Recent improvements in the economy proved more beneficial to urban families than to those living in rural America. Rural youths have typically been less competitive in the job market than those who attended non-rural schools.
So, what are the roadblocks to providing a quality preschool experience to our rural students, and how can we overcome them?
1.) Availability of services – The majority of preschool initiatives have been implemented outside rural areas, and it has been the responsibility of rural parents to locate services, often in neighboring communities. School-based and community programs in rural areas tend to fill up quickly, and parents often find their children waitlisted for preschool services.
Solution: Many schools are now offering school-based services in order to ensure student readiness for the kindergarten year.
2.) Cost – The high cost of providing preschool for all often forces administrators and legislators to scale down programming or provide services to a targeted population. These targeted programs are designed for a specific population, such as low income or special education students. This can lead to a number of students falling between the cracks, as many do not qualify for special education services, but are also not displaying traits of school readiness when they reach kindergarten.
Solution: While the operation of preschool services can be expensive, a number of studies have analyzed the long-term economic effects of an early childhood education. Some of these include higher graduation rates, earlier employment, and fewer supports necessary for grades k-12. However, schools must fund the up front cost of providing preschool services. This can be problematic in light of budget cuts and reduced funding formulas. Schools may need to rely upon grant funding and partnerships with private entities to offer scholarships to students in economic need.
3.) Transportation – Since non-metro parents living in poverty face challenges including physical isolation and lack of transportation services, lack of transportation may be the biggest obstacle to providing early childhood services to students in rural areas. Distances from school are often greater for rural families, and since no public transportation exists, children are often not able to attend school based services if transportation is not provided by the school.
Solution: If students can’t come to the school, it may be necessary to bring the school to the students. While little information exists on literacy opportunities in the homes of students living in rural poverty, a recent study found that students in rural areas had less access to reading materials. This may have stemmed from geographic distances from libraries, or from the digital divide that exists in rural areas. This meant that those who lived in rural areas had limited access to internet and computers in the home. Through partnerships with community centers in rural areas and local internet providers, schools can offer literacy and technology opportunities to preschool students in rural areas.
As educators, we must make every effort to include our neediest populations, in terms of lack of school readiness or literacy materials in the home, when we plan and initiate early childhood programming. These initial efforts and costs will allow schools to reap long-term benefits for their students’ academic careers.