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Washington, D.C. — The pre-K capital where nearly all 4-year-olds (and most 3-year-olds!) go to school

Carolyn Phenicie | June 23, 2016

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US President Barack Obama sits with students during a tour of a Pre-K classroom at Powell Elementary School prior to speaking on the Fiscal Year 2015 budget in Washington, DC, March 4, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Editor’s note: With Los Angeles poised to be able to expand preschool access once Gov. Jerry Brown signs the budget, here is a look at one city that has invested heavily in early education.

It’s a typical Wednesday morning at the Lincoln Park campus of AppleTree Early Learning, a network of pre-K charter schools dotting Washington, D.C. Inside the school, a converted row house a mile from the Capitol, three-year-olds participate in the daily Sounds, Songs, and Symbols lesson.

The kids are nearing the end of a three-week unit on paleontology and archeology, so the old Hokey Pokey gets a Jurassic spin: “you put your dino-claws in, you take your dino-claws out,” they begin to sing, concluding with an emphatic “and that’s what it’s all about!”

The class also puts in, takes out, and shakes all about their dino-teeth, tails, and gratifyingly oversized dino-feet.

The four-year-olds, a week deeper into AppleTree’s curriculum than their younger schoolmates, sit in a classroom down the hall. A teacher reads the story of best friends Chester and Wilson. There is a pause while the students discuss whether, as a character suggests, a watermelon really could grow in someone’s stomach.

Dino-dances, stomach agriculture debates, and other adorable activities resounded across the city that morning, testifying to the fact that Washington, D.C. sends nearly all of its children to pre-K. Spurred by a landmark 2008 law, the District enrolls 85 percent or more of its four-year-olds (depending on who’s counting) and an even more remarkable 60-plus percent of three-year-olds.

“The city has committed to providing a high-quality seat [to every pre-K child,]” said Travis Wright, who leads early learning programs for District of Columbia Public Schools. “That’s not something every child in the United States has.”

The National Institute of Early Education Research, which tracks enrollment nationally but uses a different methodology than the District, said 86 percent of Washington, D.C.’s four-year-olds and 64 percent of three-year-olds were enrolled in publicly-funded programs in 2015.

By contrast, Vermont, which leads all states in NIEER’s early-education enrollment analysis, had 84 percent of four-year-olds and 26 percent of three-year-olds in programs that year.

The District’s high numbers reflect a surge over over the last decade. Just 61 percent of four-year-olds, and 28 percent of three-year-olds, were enrolled in 2004, according to NIEER.


Students and a teacher work on a puzzle at Appletree Early Learning’s Lincoln Park campus in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Appletree Early Learning)

In all, more than 12,500 children out of an estimated 16,400 were enrolled in public preschool, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. An additional 1,221 children were in full-day subsidized daycare, according to the state superintendent’s office.

Early childhood educators and advocates attribute the city’s high enrollment to its commitment to provide sufficient support — preschoolers are funded using the same formula that funds older students, teachers are paid on the same salary schedule as teachers in higher grades, and city leaders have refused to cut support even in lean budget years.

Enrollment growth has also been attributed to the quality of the city’s programs and the high expectations to which the programs hold their young students. D.C. law requires every preschool to use a comprehensive curriculum aligned to K-3 instruction, to be externally monitored and accountable for student growth, and that teachers in district and charter schools have college degrees (teachers in community programs must have an associate’s degree and be working toward a four-year diploma).


Long before its post-2008 expansion, Washington, D.C. was a leader in early education. Anacostia, a poor, mostly black neighborhood, was home to a Head Start pilot site in the 1960s, and city schools began offering preschool in 1972, according to a case study of preschool expansion.

In the early 2000s, prompted by growing recognition of the importance of preschool learning and newly available public and private funds, a group of advocates and city officials formed the Universal School Readiness Group. Their report, presented to then-Mayor Anthony Williams in 2004, called for improved oversight — at the time,  multiple city agencies, as well as charter schools, shared supervision. The group also urged more funding, better teacher training, and a “date certain when universal school readiness will be a reality.”

That year, an estimated 2,000 children waited for seats in public programs that the city couldn’t afford to create.

Early learning advocates seized on the high-profile 2006 elections — the mayor and city council chairman seats were both being contested — to elevate pre-K as an issue. A new administration, led by Mayor Adrian Fenty and his hard-charging schools chief Michelle Rhee, convinced the city council to give Fenty control of the city’s schools in 2007.

The following year, city lawmakers, led by council chairman and bill sponsor Vincent C. Gray — who would go on to serve a term as mayor — unanimously passed the Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Amendment Act of 2008.

The law established class size requirements (one adult to eight children up to age three and 1-to-10 for four-year-olds) and tasked OSSE to improve city preschools by setting standards for curriculum, teacher qualifications, and professional development. It mandated universal access by 2014. (In D.C., which functions in many ways as both a city and a state, OSSE is responsible for some functions that typically reside with state education departments, like administering tests, overseeing federal grants, and setting curriculum standards. DCPS focuses on the day-to-day issues of running schools.)

Gray said it wasn’t difficult to get his fellow council members on board. “What had to be done was to make the case as to why the expenditure of these dollars for young children would have a payoff down the road,” he said.

The law folded pre-K into the city’s larger education reform strategy, said Elizabeth Groginsky, assistant superintendent for early learning at the OSSE, which oversees pre-K expansion for DCPS, charters, and community organizations.

“That was where the growth really started,” she said. “It was really a pre-K-12 system [after] that point.”

Wright, the deputy chief for early childhood education at DCPS and a former teacher, called passage of the law a “watershed moment” for preschool expansion in the city.


The Obama administration, citing studies by economists, has argued that early learning programs can save about $8.60 for every $1 spent from increased earnings for pre-K graduates as well as reduced remedial education and incarceration costs.

Early learning programs are nonetheless often among the first to go when school districts need to make cuts. State spending on preschool fell by almost $60 million in 2010 — near the height of the recession — according to NIEER.  By contrast, District leaders retained pre-K funding even when facing a budget shortfall of close to $700 million in 2009.

“There’s no panacea to anything, of course, but this is probably as close to a panacea as we’ll get, and it will save the city,” Gray said.

The District’s funding provisions are among the strongest of any city in the country.

In addition to using the same per student formula for preschool and K-12 funding, it supports programs at community-based organizations by providing the difference between federal monies a CBO receives to support its preschool and the city’s funding level.

Most states invest in early learning programs at a much lower rate — about $4,100 per child nationally compared to about $15,400 per child in D.C., according to NIEER. State funding is also often more unstable than in the District; many programs are forced to stitch together funding from multiple federal, state, and local education and child-care sources, some number of which may not be available in the next budget season.

“You need to have that kind of investment” in early learning to provide a professional workforce, said Jack McCarthy, president and CEO of the Appletree Institute.

“We have professionalized the field of preschool,” said Wright, of DCPS’s early learning office. “We have 50 years of research that shows that kids do better when their teachers are better prepared.”

The city’s investment was reflected in results using the national Classroom Assessment Scoring System. D.C. preschools received high scores for environment and organization — above levels linked to positive outcomes in other programs. In a third area, instructional support, scores are nearing that standard and increased between 2014 and 2015.

As with other standardized tests, children in affluent areas performed the best while students in poorer areas had lower scores.


The District’s law also gives pre-K providers unusual flexibility, particularly those in the charter sector, which enrolls slightly more preschoolers than do traditional public schools.

Evaluation in early education has often been input-driven, with ratings based on items like the square footage of classrooms and number of staff meetings. D.C.’s Public Charter School Board, by contrast, uses outcomes like attendance and measures growth in literacy and math skills to determine whether schools are preparing children for kindergarten.

“D.C. does a good job of providing us fewer strings, better levels of funding, and then an accountability system that is really aimed at ensuring kids are entering kindergarten with those skills we know will lead to success,” McCarthy said. “Not being under-resourced — like having a fraction of what we get and do[ing] all kinds of pretzel twists in terms of compliance to get those dollars — is really important.”

Not to be outdone by their freewheeling charter school counterparts, traditional D.C. public schools also have a unique program: all of the city’s Title I schools (those with the highest percentage of poor children) incorporate Head Start programming. That translates to additional family support, health services, and free field trips. Federal authorities have also given the city freedom to innovate in the way it serves children in Early Head Start who are too young for preschool.

It’s too early to say for a fact, but many in the District believe the city’s long-time commitment to early education helped D.C. fourth-graders post bigger gains in reading on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress than students in any other state. It was also one of just three states or jurisdictions to achieve gains in math in fourth grade.

In the Trial Urban District Assessment that compares large-city districts (which unlike NAEP doesn’t include charters), D.C. students were the only ones to make gains in both fourth-grade math and reading.

“People have sort of started asking about the D.C. magic. Like: What is happening in D.C. public schools, that you got these amazing math scores?,” Wright said. “We’ve been improving at every grade and in multiple ways over that time, but I think that early investment really did lay a foundation for these children.”

While many factors likely contributed to the gains, few in D.C. believe it’s a coincidence that the class of fourth graders who took the test were the first to go through schools under the universal preschool program — including Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

“At DC Public Schools, we know that an investment in early education makes sense,” Henderson told The 74 in an e-mailed statement. “We saw historic gains on the recent NAEP exam in 4th-grade reading, and that 4th-grade class was one of the first classes to benefit from access to universal pre-K.

“Improvements in education come from bringing lots of reforms together, and, for us, those reforms include starting kids in school early.”

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