The Abbott District's Fortunate Few

On a warm Wednesday afternoon this September, Joseph Castillo sat at a small desk in the Early Childhood Center in Orange, New Jersey, making a card for his father. Joseph’s letters, scrawled unevenly in black marker, could have been neater. He might have written out “you” instead of the letter “U.” But then again, Joseph is only four. Although his father, Jairo, a Peruvian immigrant, speaks to him in both Spanish and English, a situation that can delay when a child begins to read and write, Joseph has already begun to do both.

“Over the summer, he wrote 15 little books, the kind with superheroes,” Jairo says at pickup time. A separated father of two who works part-time as a carpenter, Jairo may be even prouder of the kindness Joseph displayed on his first day back at school. Having started at the center last year, at age three, Joseph knew how the day would likely unfold; that there would be playing, snack, circle time, and more playing. So when he saw a new student with teary eyes and a quivering chin, he put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and told him, “Don’t cry. School can be fun!”

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Second Chance for the Youngest Americans

The Abbot District's Fortunate Few

Sidebar: China Goes Big

Sidebar: The Robin Hood Plan

Sidebar: The Fade-Out Debate

Sidebar: High Enrollment, Low Standards

Q&A: The Genius of Early Intervention

Joseph’s teacher, Valencia Hutchinson, exudes a quiet calm. Bent over their block towers and plates of toy food, the small children barely seem to notice her as she wanders the room, narrating their activities. “Is that a bison?” she asks a boy holding a plastic animal. “Where do you find a bison? In a tree? In a river?” To a girl who’s making pretend strawberry juice, Valencia says, “Are you a chef, a person who likes to cook?” 

While she offers vocabulary and learning opportunities, Hutchinson is also gauging the progress of the 14 three- and four-year-olds in her class and devising new ways to challenge them. Today, because she noticed Joseph couldn’t tie his shoes, she sends him home with a toy sneaker on which he can practice. She also lends him letter beads that spell out his name and asks him to use them to make as many other words as he can.

“I woke up this morning thinking about what I could do for Joseph,” says Hutchinson, who has a toddler and five-year-old of her own. Joseph is one of her most advanced students. Because she has a full-time assistant teacher as well as another teacher trained in special education who spends part of her morning in the classroom, Hutchinson can give all the children at least some individual attention. While she’s answering Joseph’s questions about spelling, she’s also helping a little girl put on a smock over her butterfly-print dress so she can paint. When another little boy trips, she manages to help with both the painting and the card-making while holding an ice pack to the boy’s head.

 

Joseph and the other children in Hutchinson’s classroom are among a lucky minority in the country. Only 28 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool in New Jersey, the same percentage that attends preschool nationwide. (Among three-year-olds, the state does significantly better than the rest of the country, with 19 percent attending, compared to just 4 percent throughout the country.) The evidence that good pre-K offers low-income children critical benefits is overwhelming—everything from increasing the amount of time they will stay in school to decreasing the likelihood of teen pregnancy. Yet enrollment remains low in the U.S. More than $548 million was cut from education for three- and four-year-olds in the 2011–2012 school year—the largest reduction since records have been kept.

Last winter, President Barack Obama proposed a plan to remedy the situation. If it passes, the first nationwide early-education initiative will provide $100 billion over ten years for a range of programs that help prepare children from birth up to age five for school and beyond. Three-quarters of the money would be used to ensure that all poor and low-income four-year-olds can attend high-quality preschools, like those in Orange. 

The president rested the case for his preschool plan on evidence from New Jersey, Georgia, Oklahoma, and a few other states, where effective pre-K programs are in place and “studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own,” as he put it in his State of the Union message in February 2013. “We know this works,” Obama continued. “So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”

Obama’s plea might sound like the sort of platitude no one could argue with, the verbal equivalent of folding one’s body into a preschooler-size chair to commune with four-year-olds, as the president has done several times since announcing his pre-K push. Yet though the public is behind his proposal (60 percent of Republicans support it, as do 84 percent of Democrats, according to a recent poll of registered voters conducted by the First Five Years Fund), partisan politics may derail the effort.

Even within New Jersey, which has been building its preschool program in the state’s poorest school districts for more than a decade, the question remains whether the ambitious vision of providing preschool to all needy kids will take hold or recede. 

Still, anyone who would like to see what Obama’s vision of universal pre-K might look like would do well to come to Orange, one of 31 districts in the state known as “Abbotts.” Because of a historic lawsuit, for almost a decade virtually all three- and four-year-olds in these low-income urban areas have been attending preschool. Already well acquainted with the benefits and unforeseen challenges of expanding pre-K, the Abbotts serve as a window into the future of early education.

 

A compact North Jersey town just a half-hour from Manhattan, Orange was once an industrial hub. Stetson hats were first stitched here in the 19th century, and Rhein-gold beer was bottled in a brewery on Hill Street. Orange later became home to makers of pharmaceuticals, calculators, electrical supplies, and radium watch dials. But by the 1960s, manufacturing was in decline, a large highway bisected the town’s orderly blocks, and its more prosperous residents had begun to move away. Half a century after the peak of white flight, per capita income in Orange now hovers around $18,000 a year, and the student body in the public schools is more than 99 percent black and Latino. 

Orange may be significantly poorer than neighboring districts in Essex County, but it has a far better early-education program—so much better that, last year, many families moved into the district to get their children into pre-K. In its slightly more than two square miles, the city has 57 classrooms where 98 percent of its three- and four-year-olds are enrolled in full-day district-run preschool. By law, every child is entitled to attend. So Jairo, who happens to live across the street from the Orange Early Childhood Center, was able to sign Joseph up on the spot after wandering into the center. Parents have their choice of setting, since the same top-notch curriculum—HighScope—is taught in board of education buildings, Head Start centers, and private community organizations.

These aren’t just places for parents to park their kids while they’re at work. “The Abbott program may be the best preschool program on the planet,” says Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. Indeed, while there is evidence that the gains made in some early-learning programs fade over time, Barnett has established that the benefit of Abbott preschool is significant and lasting. His study, released earlier this year, found that fourth- and fifth-graders who went through Abbott preschool did significantly better in language and math than their peers who didn’t attend Abbott. The differences for children who started the program at age four were large: The average gap in test scores between minority and white students was closed by 10 percent to 20 percent. The gains to students who started preschool at age three were roughly twice that size.

As is true in the country overall, well--functioning pre-K programs are the exception in New Jersey. Although 31 districts, including Orange, offer full-day pre-K to every three- and four-year-old, New Jersey has almost 600 districts, most of which don’t serve their preschoolers nearly as well. For instance, the next town, West Orange, has no public pre-K. Indeed, more than 100 of the state’s districts have no preschool program, and many more serve only a fraction of their kids. More than 100 districts have yet to even provide full-day kindergarten to all their five-year-olds. 

 

Raymond Abbott was 12 years old in 1981 when his mother joined 19 other families from Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City that were suing the state of New Jersey over its school funding. Ray, as he was called, was attending Camden public schools, which seemed to epitomize the abysmal conditions in poor districts around the state. School buildings were crumbling and trash-strewn. Gyms lacked showers and sports equipment. Science labs had no microscopes or working sinks. Teachers were sometimes forced to hold classes in boiler rooms, basements, and storage closets. School budgets, which were largely determined by local real-estate taxes, were minuscule. As writer Jonathan Kozol noted in his 1991 exposé Savage Inequalities, which relied partly on Abbott v. Burke court filings, Camden High couldn’t even afford a lunchroom for its 2,000 students.

The contrast between these districts—which eventually numbered 31 and were named, after the lead plaintiff, “Abbott districts”—and New Jersey’s richer ones was striking. The wealthier suburban schools offered honors music programs with well-appointed practice suites, AP classes, golf programs, and, in the case of Cherry Hill, 18 different biology electives. Yet perhaps the most dramatic difference between the kids in New Jersey’s richest and poorest districts could be seen even before the children entered school.

As part of the fact-finding for the suit, a group of researchers from Rutgers University set out to evaluate children entering kindergarten in Abbott districts and found that they were already 6 to 18 months behind the state average in tests of school readiness. Interestingly, most of the children had been in some sort of day care or preschool, according to Barnett, who was involved in the investigation. Some of these settings were “terrible,” he says. Teachers yelled at children, misidentified shapes, and, in one case, tried and failed to explain the silent “E” rule. “Fortunately, the children had no idea what she was talking about,” Barnett says.

Such dismal settings weren’t unique to New Jersey, of course, and have contributed to the division of the country into educational haves and have-nots. The measurable distance between black and white and rich and poor students in New Jersey was yawning by the 1980s, though it wasn’t notably worse than it was anywhere else in the country. Vast wealth disparities divided American children, and, because school funding relies primarily on local real-estate taxes, poor children, who faced more academic challenges, generally received fewer education dollars than rich children.

While much of the nation had come to accept the achievement gap as inevitable, advocates in New Jersey insisted that the state try to close it. Marilyn Moreheuser, a former nun who led the Newark-based Education Law Center, filed an unprecedented class-action suit on behalf of Raymond Abbott and other kids in these districts. 

The Abbott case—or cases, since it ultimately involved 21 rulings that stretched over three decades—was unprecedented in its ambition: pinning responsibility for unequal student outcomes on unequal school funding. No one had before attempted to hold the state accountable for closing the vast educational chasm between rich and poor students. The suit, which was taken over by David Sciarra in 1996 after Moreheuser died, might not have had a chance if it hadn’t rested on actual children. “I was representing 300,000 poor black and Latino kids,” says Sciarra, now the executive director of the Education Law Center. “That added a lot of heft.”

Ray Abbott made education history primarily because his name happened to top the alphabetically organized list of plaintiffs. But his story crystalizes why the lawsuit was both challenging and important. Abbott remembers struggling from the beginning throughout his time in the Camden public schools, skipping class and ignoring assignments. It was only when he moved with his family to a wealthy suburb that he was diagnosed with a learning disability. By then, it seems to have been too late. A “C” student, Abbott dropped out not long after his diagnosis and went on to years of drug problems and repeated arrests. 

It’s easy to see how, in a more supportive and attentive educational environment, his life might have turned out differently. By his own recollection, Abbott’s educational failure set off his struggles. “I fell so far behind so early that I lost interest, and I didn’t listen to what was said to me,” says Abbott, who is now 45 and lives in South Jersey. “If I had understood my learning disability better, listened to my mom, I might not have gone to jail for 12 years.”

Abbott, who has been out of prison since 2000 and now works for a pest-control company, is reluctant to blame the schools for his troubles. But, ultimately, the Education Law Center did convince the state court that the schools in Camden and the other districts were failing the entire class of poor students. Indeed, the education they provided was so crummy it was found to violate the New Jersey Constitution. 

The court wound up devising several remedies, including what amounted to a massive redistribution of education dollars: Children in these poor districts in New Jersey would receive not only resources equal to those in richer districts but also additional support to help them contend with the consequences of poverty. Later, after legislators repeatedly resisted the idea of sharing money across district lines, the court wound up laying out the specific tools that each Abbott district would use to combat poverty, including, in 1998, universal preschool.

The lawyers at the Education Law Center hadn’t originally set out to ask for universal preschool; they hadn’t dreamed it would be possible. “I thought we’d be able to get better operational funding for the schools, and that’s how far we’d go,” Sciarra says. “Early education is to me the most surprising and frankly the most gratifying of all the remedies that came out of Abbott.”

There was little room for interpretation in the court’s final preschool plan, issued in 2001, which was designed to reach every three- and four-year-old living in an Abbott district—a pool that now includes more than 43,000 children. This wasn’t to be day care, the court made clear. Classes would have to be capped at 15 students and follow one of a handful of approved curricula. Every teacher in the program would have at least a bachelor’s degree and certification in early childhood education and would be paid at the same rate as elementary-school teachers (preschool salaries currently start at around $47,000 per year), and every classroom would have an assistant teacher. To improve instruction, experienced master teachers would regularly provide feedback. Lest any legislators attempt to weaken or undermine this vision, the court insisted that the state continue to monitor districts.

Perhaps most important, Abbott’s high standards came with funding attached to them. After years in which the court tried to have legislators figure out how to close the educational gaps with little success, it came up with its own plan laying out both what children should learn and how the state should pay for it. 

The other insightful part of the court’s Abbott plan—and the one that may hold great significance for planners of a possible nationwide preschool system—was its use of the child-care and Head Start institutions that were already functioning in these districts. These were some of the same places where teachers had been ineffectually yelling and misidentifying shapes back in the 1980s. But rather than shutting down these programs—a decision that would have wasted much--needed personnel and buildings and likely created political strife—educational experts trained staff to teach preschool as they thought it should be taught.

Bringing the public-school system and private Head Start and child-care providers together to teach the new preschool curriculum wasn’t easy. “It was like a shotgun marriage. Neither side was so excited about it,” says Cynthia Rice, senior policy analyst at Advocates for Children of New Jersey. It took years to get many of the centers up to speed on the pre-K curricula. Some districts still struggle, admits Rice. “But the marriage took place.”

“This is the Abbott lesson,” Sciarra says. “You had all of these existing programs that get federal and state dollars, child-care and Head Start programs already in the community. It made no sense to ignore that infrastructure and replace it with all new programs. What happened in Abbott that’s so revolutionary is that it unified child care, Head Start, and public--school classrooms in a coordinated system.”

 

Not everyone is sold on New Jersey’s Abbott plan. Governor Chris Christie has been forthright about his disdain for the court ruling, which he sees as unfairly and ineffectually directing education dollars toward Abbott districts. In his 2012 State of the State address, he deemed the entire effort a waste, noting that, though 63 percent of state aid over the years has gone to the Abbotts, “the schools are still predominantly failing.”

Christie had already made his views about early education clear, having criticized his Democratic opponent during his first gubernatorial campaign for supporting universal pre-K, which he equated with believing “the government should baby-sit for children.” Although he later backpedaled, saying his words were taken out of context, his official stance on pre-K has been that the state can’t afford an expansion, and he has waged a war with the state supreme court over funding for Abbott districts. After he cut more than $1 billion from the education budget in 2010, the court ordered him to restore nearly $500 million for Abbott districts. In response, Christie said, “This will just be another $500 million in taxpayer money that will be thrown at the Abbott districts and still ninth-graders in Newark still have a 23 percent chance of graduating.”

In the 2013–2014 budget, Christie increased Abbott funding to keep up with expanding student populations, showing either his awareness that the court would have likely restored the money or his grasp of the popular support for the program. After Republican legislators proposed taking $300 million from Abbott districts in 2011, parents, teachers, and advocates denounced the cuts; ten days later, the proposal was tabled. 

Christie, though, has not funded the state’s pre-K programs at the level the law requires. In 2008, the legislature passed and Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, signed the School Funding Reform Act, which gave New Jersey five years to expand preschool to all low-income children. The law should have resulted in a little more than 80 additional districts receiving Abbott-quality preschool—and technically done away with the Abbotts. But neither Christie (nor Corzine) allocated the money that would have expanded pre-K. “Had Christie followed the state funding formula, New Jersey would be the only state to have all poor kids in a full-day, full-year program starting at three,” Sciarra says. “Instead, he has basically walked away from one of the most successful educational programs ever.”

 

A huge number of low-income children reach kindergarten age without having any schooling. In the U.S., there are some 1.3 million; in New Jersey, roughly 35,000. And in Randee Mandlebaum’s current kindergarten class, there are eight. Mandlebaum, who is in her 20th year of teaching kindergarten in Freehold, New Jersey, is able to pick them out immediately. “They’re more impulsive, they have trouble sharing crayons and markers, they can’t sit on the rug,” she says. Some, like a kid she calls “Nicky,” can’t even recognize their own names in writing.

With its wraparound porches and manicured lawns, the borough of Freehold may at first seem an odd place to glimpse what might happen if we forge ahead without a national pre-K program. Despite its quaint housing and proximity to wealthier suburbs, the South Jersey town is home to deep poverty. Bruce Springsteen sang about its tough times in the 1980s (“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more”). These days, Freehold is even worse off. More than 70 percent of its students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. More than three-quarters are Latino; many are first--generation Mexican immigrants.

In 2008, when it seemed that Freehold would qualify for preschool funding from the School Funding Reform Act, Ronnie Dougherty, a school principal and early-education specialist, planned to create a full-day program in Freehold. By the time she realized her money wasn’t coming because the law wasn’t being fully funded, Dougherty was so far along in the process that she decided to go ahead with the program anyway, using money from other pots.

Freehold was only able to afford full-day pre-K for two years, but in that time, Dougherty created a small research sample of her own. She’s kept tabs on the more than 100 students who were in the full-day classes. So far, she says, every child who was in the program has scored proficient on state tests. As a group, those who were in full-day pre-K scored 24 points higher on third-grade state math tests and 30 percent higher on language arts tests than their peers who didn’t go to full-day pre-K. 

In 2008, Freehold changed to half-day pre-K, which, despite its name, lasts two and a half hours. The four-year-old students begin getting their jackets on and lining up to leave at 10:25 A.M. While some might expect a half-day program to be about half as good as full-day, Dougherty thinks it’s even less useful, mainly because most parents work and can’t manage the logistics. Parents were so enthusiastic about the full-day program that Dougherty had to call the police to keep the peace at the lottery for slots. Now, a few of her half-day slots remain empty. 

Parents who opt to schlep to school twice in three hours recognize that half-day pre-K is far less helpful than full-day. “It’s just so clear with my kids,” says Dena Levine, a mother of four girls. Her two older daughters attended the longer program. Since full-day wasn’t available for her younger two children, ages six and four, they received only the half-day version. “They’re all equally smart,” Levine says of her kids. “But Hanna and Olivia started kindergarten reading. Amelia,” who completed the half-day program and is now in first grade, “is definitely behind where they were. It’s night and day.”

Still, Levine’s children got some preschool and, most significantly, come from a middle-class home with two well-educated parents. Less fortunate kids, like Nicky in Randee Mandlebaum’s class, suffer more without any early schooling. Based on her previous experience, Mandlebaum estimates about half of these students will catch up and move on to first grade next year. The rest may wind up repeating kindergarten. 

Since last year, such students in Freehold have had another option: a “Transitional One” classroom. Dougherty instituted this hybrid between kindergarten and first grade because about 20 percent of her students, most of whom hadn’t attended preschool, were trailing the rest of the class. The transitional year, which comes after kindergarten, reviews the basics. In the first week of school, the six-year-old students were finding and circling pictures of things that began with the letter “B” and going over how to sit nicely on the rug.

Transitional One solves some of Freehold’s problems. Because it exposes students to parts of the first-grade curriculum, it gives them confidence in their skills, which improves their chance of success in first grade. But, on the downside, by the time they are in first grade, Transitional One students are a year behind the others. The older children are, the more difficult it is for them to learn even the basics. It’s expensive, too. Dougherty estimates that the first year of Transitional One for just those 18 students cost the district about $60,000 in staff time and supplies. 

Queens College economist Clive Belfield estimates the medium-term costs averted by providing pre-K at somewhere between $2,591 and $9,547 per child. That figure, calculated in 2004, doesn’t include the long-term costs, such as a reduction in crime and delinquency, lower welfare dependence, and higher income taxes. Nor does it—nor can it—quantify the true price of diminishing kids’ shot at academic success. 

Dougherty looks stricken when she describes some of the kindergarten students who arrived on the first day of school. “They didn’t know how to hold a book. They didn’t understand there was a relationship between words and pictures. They didn’t know their colors or numbers, didn’t know their alphabets,” she says. “Scaling back the pre-K program was heart-wrenching for me and the superintendent at that time. But there was nothing we could do.”

Now she and the current district superintendent, Rocco Tomazic, are trying to decide whether to use their limited budget to continue providing part-day pre-K to a small number of children or go back to providing the full-day program to an even smaller group of students.

 

Over in Orange, after more than a decade of preschool for all, administrators are wrestling with a different, happier problem. “A growing number of children are arriving at kindergarten already reading and writing and then spending a good part of that year sitting in a class being taught their letters,” says Candace Goldstein, director of special programs in Orange, who oversees early education. “We were used to kindergarteners having no vocabulary. Now they’re coming in with huge vocabularies.”

The Abbott program has received praise for aligning pre-K with the schooling that follows. The New America Foundation commended it for doing “more than perhaps any other state in the country to link” early learning with K-12. But, in Orange, it’s still a challenge to keep advanced students moving ahead, rather than going over material they’ve already learned.

Goldstein considers the problem serious enough that she hired a former kindergarten teacher, Adrianna Hernandez, to ease the way for these higher-level students. A big part of Hernandez’s new job is to raise the expectations of kindergarten teachers who aren’t used to well-prepared kids. Hernandez travels Orange’s kindergarten classrooms armed with stacks of five-year-olds’ creations: pictures, stories, and neatly lettered sentences proclaiming their love for reading, science, and social studies. She needs this evidence to convince her colleagues of the heights this new generation of five-year-olds can reach.

“At first they don’t believe me,” Hernandez says. “Older teachers in particular don’t realize how much smarter the kids are than when they first started teaching.”

Indeed, it’s taken a while for the idea of connecting preschool to elementary school to seep into the mainstream. Early education used to be thought of as targeting children under five, particularly toddlers. Now, the definition of “early” has expanded to age eight, or third grade. This is when students are expected to be proficient at reading. Yet two-thirds of all kids—and 87 percent of low-income students—aren’t. Education experts have recently begun drawing a straight line between that failure and the high rates of high-school dropouts.

“You have to have a strong kindergarten through third grade,” says Carla Thompson of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has been focusing on increasing the number of third-graders who are proficient at reading and math. As teachers in Orange are seeing, that means not just reaching preschoolers as early as possible but keeping pace with their advancement as they enter elementary school.

For her part, back at the Orange Early Learning Center, Valencia Hutchinson is not surprised by the advances made by Joseph, whom she expects to finish the year ready for first grade. She has seen many of her students learn at a similar pace. In Freehold, Ronnie Dougherty is also keeping an eye on her cohort of full-day pre-K kids, now in the fourth and fifth grades, as they continue to do well in school.

Even Raymond Abbott, who once viewed the classroom as a prison to be escaped, is beginning to look at schools in a different way: how they might one day serve his now one-year-old son. “I just hope and wish that the state, the country, whatever, will recognize that education is important to the kids today,” says Abbott, who is married to an elementary-school teacher.

The bigger hope, of course, is that all the kids will get the help they need, beginning with good preschool. On this front, too, there is some promise. Although Democratic state Senator Barbara Buono, who authored New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act and campaigned for governor in 2013 on the idea of expanding the state’s preschool program, lost her bid to replace Christie, the effort to provide more needy children with preschool has been recently renewed. Advocates for Children in New Jersey, a group that was involved in the creation of Abbott preschool, just relaunched a campaign to convince the governor and legislature to fully fund preschool for all low-income children. 

At the same time, the organization has been helping with the national pre-K plan. Recently, it sent the Obama administration a list of lessons learned from New Jersey’s experience with Abbott preschool. Among them: that the pre-K curriculum should line up with kindergarten and beyond, so gains made during that year aren’t lost; that teachers need to be highly trained and well paid; that building a good preschool system can take a long time; and, perhaps most important, that, if it’s done well, preschool offers a great return on investment.

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