Our Views: P4J appears to serve Janesville School District well

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

From outward appearances, the Janesville School District’s 4-year-old kindergarten program has been a resounding success. It would be nice, however, to see concrete proof—test scores—that support that notion. Unfortunately, the district lacks that.

In last Sunday’s Gazette, reporter Frank Schultz took an inside look at the program, P4J, which started five years ago. Because of lessons 4-year-olds learn, kindergarten teachers find 5-year-olds more uniformly ready for the curriculum. These teachers no longer spend weeks each fall on behavioral basics—how to sit and listen, raise their hands, walk quietly in halls, take turns and share.

Evansville, which is debating whether to enact 4-year-old kindergarten, would do well to use Janesville as a guide.

Janesville’s program was enacted amid controversy. Critics argued 4-year-olds shouldn’t be pushed into reading, writing and math before their brains are ready. They reasoned the best place for kids that age is at home with their mothers. They suggested the district would be offering a baby-sitting service and helping parents avoid responsibility. They feared start-up costs and wondered if P4J would harm day care businesses.

Five years later, the program has tamped down these concerns.

It’s good that P4J doesn’t force feed academics. Instead of pushing worksheets, instructors, for example, teach colors by pointing out that the ball is blue or the car is red. Students learn simple skills such as the alphabet, sounds of letters, and how to print their names and use scissors.

Families who believe their kids are better off at home have that choice—P4J is optional, and not all Janesville children enroll.

Start-up costs were high, but the program now more than pays for itself through increased state aid and property taxes. Yes, that means homeowners share costs, but last year the district drew $336,000 more in aid and local taxes than the program spent. This extra revenue helped balance district books at a difficult time.

Many kids learning in P4J do so at private preschools that the district oversees. Angela Lynch, who took over as program coordinator this month, notes that free professional development for all P4J teachers has strengthened district ties to private preschools.

School board member Bill Sodemann opposed the program in 2007 and still does on philosophical grounds. He fears kids will grow up believing they’re entitled to free services. He would have preferred a program only for students who need the help. Yet state funding stipulates that the program be open to all.

It’s simplistic to expect that all parents will read to their children and teach basics that prepare them for school. Poverty has risen in Janesville, and too many parents struggle with low incomes, substance abuse or emotional problems. Sometimes a single parent works multiple jobs. In many such homes, nurturing children is an afterthought, and TV serves as a constant baby sitter.

Studies show 4-year-old kindergarten pays off, particularly for minorities and the poor. They’re less likely to fall behind their peers and drop out. Taxpayers can pay now to put them on paths to educational success or pay later through entitlements and incarceration.

Whether Janesville test data will support anecdotal evidence of success remains to be seen. Last year marked the first time kids who attended P4J took the state’s standardized tests as third-graders. An analysis of how P4J might have boosted those scores has not been completed.

Janesville prides itself on being a data-driven district. It claims to use data to identify and correct weaknesses and build on strengths. So an analysis of P4J test results should be a top priority for Lynch.

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