More than two years into the city’s four-year pilot preschool program, a new study suggests it is helping more children get ready for kindergarten.
When voters in 2014 approved a $58 million property-tax levy to pay for city-subsidized preschool, elected officials largely sold the idea as a way to help erase the gaps in achievement among ethnic groups that show up even before children enter school.
And now, more than halfway through the program’s four-year trial period, a new study of its results to date suggests it is preparing more children for kindergarten, with the greatest gains among students of color and those from low-income households or families that don’t speak English.
“The results are very encouraging,” said Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess, who as a city council member campaigned heavily for the 2014 measure.
In particular, Burgess highlighted the study’s comparison of the quality of Seattle’s preschool pilot to similar programs in Boston, New Jersey and San Antonio, all of which have been around longer. The study also found Seattle, despite more than doubling its number of preschool classrooms in its second year, did so without diluting the quality of the program.
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“We’re doing as well or in some cases a little better in these early measures of performance,” Burgess said.
The city, which paid for the study, released it Tuesday. It was conducted by researchers from the National Institution for Early Education Research and the University of Washington.
During the 2016-17 school year, the team tested 291 children in the city’s program and 132 who either were on the waitlist or enrolled in other preschool centers. The study does include a caveat: The researchers did not compare children in the city’s program with a randomly assigned control group — the gold standard in research design.
The team found early, though not conclusive, signs that the Seattle program helped improve the vocabulary, literacy and math skills of participating students. The largest gains were seen among children of color.
The study also included one not-so-good finding: Preschoolers in the control group outperformed children in the Seattle program on a test of short-term memory and other skills that help children finish a task.
The city’s program subsidizes preschool tuition on a sliding scale, and is open to all 4-year-olds in Seattle. But about 80 percent of the enrolled children come from families who qualified for free tuition, according to the city.
“We are really pleased with the families and children that we’re serving, because we feel that that’s where the need is,” said Monica Liang-Aguirre, the city’s director of early learning.
As of Monday, nearly 1,000 children were enrolled in the program.
The city originally planned to ramp up to about 2,000 children in the 2018-19 school year, the final year of the trial period. But last year then-Mayor Ed Murray shrunk the projected enrollment after the program began paying preschool providers more money per child.
Next year, the city will merge the preschool levy with its separate Families and Education Levy.
There’s no guarantee the city’s education department, incoming Mayor Jenny Durkan or the City Council will decide to keep the preschool program — and whether voters would decide to keep funding it after the four years are over.
But Burgess said the study shows that the city should double down on the preschool program.
“These results show we can do this,” Burgess said. “We’re off to a great start, and we should stay the course and continue to expand preschool.
“All the evidence, all the science shows if we continue to do this well, the lives of these kids will be changed.”