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PREpared for success

Wider access to preschool will help more kids succeed in later grades, according to a growing chorus of advocates

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Tucked in among fast-food joints and dime stores in a suburban strip mall, Kids in Action would hardly seem a standard-bearer for the future of child care.

Most of the workers have only a high school education, if that. Children can go outside to play – in a tiny fenced space that is filled with soft gravel. The big excitement at playtime comes when a garbage truck lifts up a dumpster next door. Some of the 60-odd enrolled students spend more than 40 hours a week, from infancy till they enter kindergarten, entirely in this small facility.

Still, Kids in Action, which largely serves low-income children, is reason for hope.

One of dozens of centers receiving help from Educare Colorado, an early-childhood-education advocacy group, the center has already come a long way in the two years she's been working with it, says Toni LaTronica, an Educare site coach. Many of the staff have been trained to integrate education into everything they do, and Ms. LaTronica has helped the center adopt a respected curriculum that focuses on learning through play. Activities are now planned as learning opportunities, and artwork and books dot the classroom.

"Their classroom-environment scores have gone from inadequate to a good-to-excellent range," says LaTronica.

What's happening at Kids in Action indicates a growing effort around the United States to ensure that all children have basic abilities – ones that are often taken for granted – before they ever set foot in a public school classroom. In Colorado, for instance, kindergarten teachers surveyed by Educare Colorado reported that 40 percent of new students couldn't name simple shapes, recognize the difference between letters and numbers, or count to 20.

The initiatives are coming from any number of constituencies: Laura Bush, the first lady and a former librarian, has promoted early-learning skills. President Bush recently unveiled a proposal to strengthen Head Start by better aligning its goals with those in K-12 classes. Teachers unions have begun calling for universal preschool. And a growing body of brain research is lending scientific weight to the perception that a child's earliest years are crucial to learning.

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