Putting more funding into pre-K is “where we can get the biggest bang for our buck, but where we invest the least,” said Danila Crespin Zidovsky, policy analyst for New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership.
Members of the NMECDP have been touring state-funded pre-K classrooms across the state, often with state legislators and other officials, to raise awareness about the benefits of pre-K and the importance of expanding it to every 3- and 4-year-old whose family seeks a placement.
On Wednesday they spent time at Youth Development Inc.’s Centro de Amor pre-K at Third Street and Stover SW.
The short-term advantages are “all the children in here are learning and developing academic and literacy skills,” as well as maturing emotionally, socially and getting used to the daily routine of school, Crespin Zidovsky said.
They are also provided a nutritious breakfast, lunch and a mid afternoon snack, something that is particularly important because most of the children in state-funded pre-K come from lower income families and the majority of their meals are from the pre-K sites, she said. The long-term advantages of early childhood learning are a decrease in juvenile incarceration, a decrease in teen pregnancy, and an increase in kids graduating from high school and going on to college.
“This is the time we should be investing in children,” Crespin Zidovsky said, adding that 95 percent of a child’s brain development occurs by age 3.
There are currently about 10,000 kids in New Mexico enrolled in pre-K programs that are funded through the Children, Youth and Families Department or by the Public Education Department. Combined, they provide about $55 million for pre-K, “but we need about $260 million to get to 80 percent capacity,” she said.
“We know pre-K is working, we know parents want it and we know there’s waiting lists across communities in this state. If we’re going to make an impact as far as economic development goes, this is where we should be making that investment,” Crespin Zidovsky said.
The availability of high quality, low-to-no-cost pre-K makes a huge difference to working families, and could be a major draw for employers who are trying to attract new workers to the state, she said.
Gloria Orona, associate director of the pre-K program at Centro de Amor, said there are two other YDI pre-Ks in Albuquerque. All three are funded by the state for about $790,000 in total. Each has an enrollment of about 20 kids and each program is consistently filled.
District 2 City Councilor Isaac Benton was among those who toured Centro de Amor. A long-time proponent of early childhood programs, Benton said it was not likely the city would allocate money directly for pre-Ks, but the city does have community centers with classrooms and other buildings that could be used to expand pre-K programs in Albuquerque.