NM finds lasting gains in first pre-K cohort

More than 14 years ago, a class of 4- and 5-year-olds at St. Mark’s in the Valley Day School takes off on their stick horses in the school’s playground area. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Almost 15 years ago, they practiced sitting quietly in a circle and learned shapes and colors.

Now the 4-year-olds from New Mexico’s first state-funded prekindergarten program are old enough to have just finished high school.

And the results are promising, legislative analysts say.

A study of the state’s first pre-K cohort found long-lasting academic improvements – including an 80% graduation rate for those in the inaugural group, or more than 6 percentage points better than students who didn’t participate in pre-K, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.

In this 2005 file photo, Gov. Bill Richardson puts his handprint on a paper symbolizing the pre-K bill being signed into law as 4-year-old Logan Pelowitz looks on, waiting for his turn. (Jaelyn Demaria Leary/Albuquerque Journal)

The improvement is even more dramatic for English-language learners and children from lower-income families, where analysts found an 11-point increase in graduation rates.

Other benefits include a reduction in chronic absenteeism and improved odds that a child will exit special education services.

One of the children enrolled in the first pre-K cohort was Julian Soto, who graduated from Albuquerque High School last year.

Yamel Soto, his mom, said Monday that she would encourage other parents to pursue prekindergarten for their kids. Years ago, she had hoped to enroll her older daughter, but there wasn’t room.

Then her son landed in the first state-funded pre-K cohort at Eugene Field Elementary in August 2005.

“I’m pretty sure it does make a difference,” Soto, now a clerk for Albuquerque Public Schools, said in an interview Monday. “I wanted him to get started on his basic learning.”

An early start, it turns out, can produce lasting gains for New Mexico students.

Analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee tracked the state’s inaugural prekindergarten class for 14 years, using state data.

In addition to graduation gains, they also found increases of 2 percentage points in students’ proficiency in math and English, measured by standardized tests in the third grade. Math proficiency climbed to 34% in the 2018 school year for pre-K students, compared with 32% among students who hadn’t participated.

“We spend a lot of time in New Mexico – and rightly so – addressing chronic failures of our K-12 system,” said Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, an education advocacy group. “We talk a lot about it, we hear about it, and we should, but I think there’s also a moment to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing some things right.’ ”

The LFC report, issued this summer, comes as Democratic and Republican legislators alike turn to prekindergarten and other early childhood education programs as a key strategy for improving academic outcomes and closing the achievement gap.

Alex Atencio, right, and Kiley Otero, middle, look at books together in Chrissy Tenorio’s class of 4- and 5-year-olds at St. Mark’s in the Valley Day School in 2006. Children in the first state-funded prekindergarten cohort had improved graduation rates 14 years later. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The program started in 2005 when then-Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, both Democrats, pushed for the first state-funded prekindergarten program. About 1,500 students were covered.

Pre-K services have grown since then through Republican and Democratic administrations, reaching about 11,000 students by the 2020 school year.

In a recent six-year period through 2019, state spending on pre-K more than doubled. The state expects to spend about $95 million on prekindergarten programs over the next year – some delivered through public schools, others by private providers.

Legislative analysts estimated the state will get a positive return for the money, generating nearly “$6 for every dollar spent through tax revenue on the higher earnings of participants and reduced social costs.”

But the analysts also cautioned that the state must maintain high-quality programs as it expands prekindergarten to more children. They also said it’s important to help students maintain their gains.

The positive effects of prekindergarten, for example, seem to be amplified when students also participate in K-5 Plus programs that extend the school year for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The program was canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said it’s a credit to New Mexico that the state could track the first cohort. Some communities, she said, have had trouble keeping the data.

Groginsky has worked in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

“I was pleased to see that New Mexico’s results were so strong,” she said Monday.

The LFC’s findings include:

• About 80% of children in New Mexico’s first prekindergarten cohort graduated from high school, compared with 74% of students who didn’t participate. The difference was statistically significant, even after controlling for demographic and other factors.

• About 83% of the pre-K students who were English-language learners graduated from high school, compared with 72% who weren’t in pre-K.

• Participation in prekindergarten was associated with a 50% reduction in the student being held back a grade.

• Pre-K students had chronic absenteeism rates 25% lower.

• A larger percentage of prekindergarten students exited special education services by third grade.

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