Saved by the Bell:

Mini cowboys, fairies, firemen, and wizards are stuffing themselves with cupcakes, chips, and candy. Powerpuff Girls are slapping high fives and X-MEN are dueling. The Digimon's dad is getting it all on videotape. A grown-up hippie with an Afro wig and a bullhorn repeatedly tries to get everyone's attention. Finally, the children of Boston's Early Learning Center begin their Halloween parade around the cafeteria.

A sign on the Center door warns parents to beware of pit bulls in the neighborhood. And across the street, a mural says, "Stop the Violence" with an illustration of a gun and a gravestone. One teacher says that in this tough neighborhood, the muralist has not gotten his or her wish. But the only scary things inside the school are the cardboard haunted houses the kids have decorated.

The children may call school fun, but the Center's director, Myrtle David, calls it education; A huge red sign on her office door says: Early Childhood Education Works! To prove it, teachers hold themselves responsible for getting kids ready to read and do math as well as share, follow directions, dress themselves, and sit still -- sometimes trying tasks for wound-up tots.

Amy Rugel instructs the four-year-olds in Room Five. She has been teaching for 30 years and plans to retire from the classroom this June. She's not retiring from education, however; Rugel's husband recently sold his company for $100 million and has promised to give her "a couple million" to start a foundation. She plans to give grants to elementary school teachers in Boston Public Schools so they can buy supplies and go on field trips.

Rugel spent the day before Halloween reading her pre-kindergarten students Halloween stories, discussing the senses, reviewing letters and numbers, and helping the kids make witches' brooms out of construction paper to hone fine motor skills. She also peppered all lessons with pointers on classroom etiquette.

After lunch, the class practiced its "Five Little Pumpkins" poem. Since it was snowing, the children skipped recess. Predictably, the classroom erupted into standard issue kid chaos. Kayla kept scooting off the rug so she could scribble her name on my notebook. Matthew was wiggling. And after being reprimanded for repeatedly trying to roll up the reading rug, Aleyah curled into a ball and wailed.

But the lesson did its job. Kristin O'Malley, the student teacher, had copied the poem in large print. As the students chanted the poem they'd memorized through daily repetition, O'Malley helped one child point to each word as they said it. The purpose of the lesson was to help children understand that every spoken word has a corresponding written one -- and remind them that reading goes from left to right. Such concepts seem second nature to grown-ups, but they have to be taught to kids.

If Al Gore has his way, all four-year-olds would be able to attend a pre-kindergarten like this one. Though it hasn't been the loudest thing on his lips this campaign season, Gore has consistently promised to provide $50 billion over 10 years in matching grants to states for preschool. Most of the rules he would leave to the states.

Though publicly funded preschool is catching on in many states, most only serve a small proportion of the population. Massachusetts serves only 21 percent of low-income children eligible for state-funded preschool, for example.

Georgia is the exception. It is the only state that promises preschool to all four-year-olds. Started in 1995 by Democratic Governor Zell Miller (who now serves in the U.S. Senate), the state has paid for students to attend approved preschools using money raised from the state lottery. The program now serves about 75 percent of four-year-olds; 60 percent of them attend private pre-k and 40 percent go to public schools.

Georgians love the program. And Boston's Early Learning Center regularly has hundreds of students on its waiting list for 50 pre-k slots. The reason for both may be that preschool works.

Well-designed pre-k programs can help both children and parents. According to numerous studies, high-quality early schooling can help students academically and socially. Students who attend preschool tend to show higher levels of academic achievement than those who don't -- and students keep the higher test scores well into their schooling. Furthermore, controlled studies show that students who have attended good preschools tend to be held back less often, graduate from high school at higher rates, and are less likely to be placed in special education classes than those who didn't. Most studies also show improvements in the IQ of students. However, those gains -- unlike others -- tend to fade over time.

Preschool can help children in other ways as well. For example, students in some programs proved to have fewer behavioral problems, commit fewer and less serious crimes and use welfare less later in life. And the children who attended the intensive Perry Preschool for low-income children in Ypsilanti, Michigan, grew up to earn 60 percent more than those children in the control group who had not attended the program.

Because they provide a safe place for children to stay, preschool can also benefit parents. When children are in preschool, parents are more able to work and go to school themselves. A study by Yale researchers indicated that parents of children in several preschools spent less money on childcare, missed work less often as a result of problems with childcare, and felt less stress related to parenting. The reduced stress caused better parent-child relationships.

Effects in all areas -- academic, emotional, and financial -- are particularly strong for low-income and minority children and families. The Early Learning Center itself serves primarily low-income communities, and its students are mostly black and Hispanic.

Even the most enthusiastic advocates of pre-k will tell you that the positive effects only come with high quality schools, however. For the most part, researchers agree on what makes a high quality program. The Early Learning Center has all the elements of a model school.

First, teachers must be highly qualified. In a
study of Georgia pre-k programs conducted at Georgia State University, teachers with college degrees were far better than those who had pre-k certifications that didn't include a college degree. The teachers at the Early Learning Center all have college degrees. And Rugel also has two education-related masters degrees.

Second, classes must be small. The effective Perry Preschool had one teacher for every six students. Though it's smaller than most classes at the Center because it integrates several students with extra difficulties, the class I visited has 12 students and three adults.

Third, teacher pay must be high enough to retain a talented staff with low turnover. At the Early Learning Center, teachers in the lunchroom boisterously recall all the superintendents they've lived through -- but almost all of them have been teaching at the Center for at least 10 years. The teachers say that in addition to enjoying their work environment, they stay because they are paid the same salaries as all Boston Public School teachers -- a sum that is higher than many private preschool teachers'.

The study in Georgia found that public pre-k tended to be better than private. In addition to the fact that public school teachers were better educated and better paid, they were also happier in their work environments. Furthermore, children who were able to stay at the same school as they transitioned from pre-k into kindergarten were better off -- a situation that was more likely if students were at public schools.

If programs are the length of a full workday and go year-round, they are much more likely to be beneficial to working parents. Most programs are not. Georgia's, for example, offers free school 6 * hours per day, 180 days per year. The Early Learning Center, on the other hand, is open from 7:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the school year.

Such high quality usually comes at a high cost. Georgia spends about $3,500 for each of its 63,500 students. Perry Preschool costs about $6,000 per year for each child and lasted two years for most students, and the Early Learning Center costs $7,000 per year for its full-day program. The Gore campaign bases its figures on an estimate by Brookings scholar Isabelle Sawhill, who predicts that offering preschool to all the nation's four-year-olds would cost $100 billion over 10 years.

With costs like that, some charge that with public schools already underfunded, good teachers scarce, and many school districts overflowing, there is no way to ensure high-quality schooling for all. In an attempt to offer preschool to more children, critics argue, states will cut corners -- thereby reducing effectiveness. Others contend that while pre-k may be a good program, government money may be better spent on reducing class sizes or increasing teacher pay.

Preschool enthusiasts promise that the money will be very well spent, however. According to a RAND study, one of the most cost-efficient ways to raise test scores is to offer preschool in low-income states. And RAND also concludes that high quality preschool will actually save the government money in the long run. Since students will eventually earn more, they will pay more taxes. They will also use welfare less, need fewer special education resources, and cost the criminal justice system less because they will commit fewer crimes.

Whenever she gets a break from teaching her class, Rugel instructs me: Teachers need more support. George W. Bush doesn't know the first thing about education. (How will she survive a Bush administration?) And Al Gore's exactly on the right track with his pre-k proposal. The lesson does seem clear: With the new economy demanding ever more from America's schools and moms and dads working more than ever, the time has come for pre-k. Because before we know it, those mini cowboys, fairies, firemen, and wizards will need to be grown-up doctors, teachers, and engineers.