Mecklenburg needs universal Pre-K, but poor kids need other help too

Young students like Steven Nay (center) need a range of supports, both in school and at home.
Young students like Steven Nay (center) need a range of supports, both in school and at home.

In a recent editorial, The Observer said it initially questioned Mecklenburg County business leaders’ decision to spend $500,000 to study whether universal pre-K would benefit local children and families. The newspaper contended that of course pre-K is an investment that will help local children.

We’re thrilled that Mecklenburg County business leaders and County Manager Dena Diorio are interested in expanding pre-K. Yet we also know a full range of early childhood programs can make the most difference for local children and families.

In recent years, researchers have learned that children’s brain development starts much earlier than we once knew. This development needs nurturing, especially in children who suffer from the toxic stress associated with poverty.

The best research on pre-K programs shows that it takes more than just preschool to help children learn. The most powerful programs require intensive classroom teaching and additional supports such as home visits by teachers and health screenings and services. Many pre-K programs don’t offer those additional steps.

The Observer cited county data showing about 2,500 children are on the pre-K waiting list, and a new Duke University study shows higher academic achievement among students who went through the state’s existing pre-K program.

We contend that many thousands more children go without high-quality childcare, health care and other services.

But good work is happening across the Carolinas to improve outcomes.

Dr. David Willis, a senior official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, called the Carolinas “the hotbed for transformation for early childhood and home visiting.”

We suggest that Mecklenburg leaders consider what’s happening across the nation in developing a full array of early childhood services, including:

▪ Home visiting programs. Research shows that regular, well-planned visits by health or education professionals with low-income families can improve prenatal health and children’s early learning. Our organization worked with S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration, the Duke Endowment and others to use public-private “Pay for Success” financing for a $30 million expansion of the Nurse-Family Partnership across the state.

▪ Better childcare. It’s not just 4-year-olds who need preschool. Infants and toddlers need better care, too. Durham, N.C. and Spartanburg, S.C. have begun work to expand high-quality preschools and elevate childcare center quality by incentivizing educators to seek additional training.

▪ Reforms to Head Start. Our organization’s new report on the future of Head Start programs in the South calls for states to build on this successful program. New standards should help to improve program quality and give states an opportunity to do more with Head Start.

The best way to boost social mobility and close achievement gaps for Charlotte’s young children will take more than just expanding pre-K. It’ll take all of us deciding our children deserve a range of programs and services that are proven to work.

Waters is executive vice president of the Institute for Child Success, a nonprofit based in Greenville, S.C. and New York City. Winer, co-founder of the Winer Family Foundation, lives in Charlotte and serves on the Institute’s board.