Giving Compass' Take:

• Greenbrier County Schools in West Virginia has free, universal preschool for all 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds with special needs. Teachers are highly involved with transitions from pre-k to kindergarten so that young children a priority in the early education system.

• Despite the high-quality preschool programs, West Virginia's elementary school education is lacking in comparison. The state needs to invest as much money, time, and care into other aspects of the education system for it to meet the standards of the early ed initiatives. 

• Read about the power of education data for early childhood learning.

Unlike most states, West Virginia offers free, universal preschool to all 20,000 of its 4-year-olds, as well as to 3-year-olds with special needs. Experts here say the effort to offer every child in the state a high-quality preschool spot has taken lots of time and money — almost 20 years so far and $98 million in state spending in 2018 — to get right.

“Data shows if it’s not going to be a quality program, then it’s not going to impact children and families,” said Nancy Hanna, an associate superintendent of Greenbrier County Schools who oversees early childhood education. Hanna said collaboration and a focus on enabling children to self-regulate are two of the most important elements of her county school district’s success.

Teachers here say parents share insights about their child more freely in the privacy of the home. And, by observing kids at home, teachers say they develop a better understanding of their students before they even start school.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers in West Virginia are required to communicate with each other about the students they will eventually share, ensuring each child transitions smoothly between the grades. It’s a requirement only a few states have. In Greenbrier, that communication requirement is just a starting point: Educators in the sprawling, 4,800-student district meet with the key adults in each child’s life — in person.

Over the last three years, West Virginia has made marked improvements in providing emotional support in preschool, achieving some of the highest scores ever seen and rivaling highly regarded programs in San Antonio, Texas, and New York City, according to NIEER’s Nores, who is leading a five-year longitudinal study, examining the effectiveness of West Virginia’s preschool program.

For those children who start school lagging behind their peers, “[West Virginia] has a clear vision of how to navigate the deficits the children bring without seeing them as anything more than a skill that needs to be developed,” Nores said. “It’s not children having a problem; it’s children not having a skill.”

Nonetheless, West Virginia’s efforts might not be enough to ensure long-term student success unless the state can find a way to make its early elementary grades as successful as its preschool program — “the national reality” across every program assessed, according to Nores. Without that structural support, data indicates those early gains gradually erode, she said.

Read the full article about investing in every aspect of early education by Peggy Barmore at The Hechinger Report.