Our views: Help kids be successful

Some 5-year-olds show up at the kindergarten door having been exposed to hundreds of books. Other kindergartners show up at that same door without ever having heard a bedtime story or having a book read to them.

Yet we expect teachers to work miracles and in the span of one year bring those ill-equipped youngsters up to par and turn them into lifelong learners.

It's not a realistic expectation.

The solution is to get to those at-risk youngsters before they enter kindergarten and help them prepare for the academic challenges ahead.

According to a state survey, less than half of Washington kindergartners - just 44 percent - arrive ready and equipped to learn. Just 25 percent of the lowest-income students are considered school ready.

Gov. Chris Gregoire recognizes the need to zero in on those early years. A year ago with the help of the Legislature, she created the Department of Early Learning to focus state efforts on young children to get them healthy and ready for school.

Gregoire has proposed a budget of $178.7 million to improve early learning programs.

It's a solid proposal worthy of legislative support.

The governor's budget includes dollars to bolster preschool programs. She also proposes to increase the rates the state pays for children in subsidized child care so that quality child-care workers steer vulnerable children in the right direction by reading to them, challenging them to learn their colors and shapes, to learn their ABCs and to learn to count.

Gregoire's proposals also would pay for all-day kindergarten in 10 percent of Washington schools, focusing first on schools with high poverty levels. That has been a goal of Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, who now chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Today the state funds only half-day kindergarten. While it's true that some schools offer full-day options to families who pay tuition, the goal of the governor and Haigh is to move toward full-time for all students is a good one.

How fast the state gets there is a matter of debate - even among elected officials. State Superintendent Terry Bergeson, for example, wants all-day kindergarten programs at all Washington schools within four years. Her 2007-09 budget request asks for $117.6 million toward that effort.

That may be too big a bite of the budget pie for lawmakers to swallow, but it's definitely a goal worth working toward. Studies show that full-day kindergarten increases students' school readiness, improves their attendance record, and supports their literacy and language development, Bergeson said.

Christine Goode, a Centennial Elementary School kindergarten teacher, recently spoke to The Olympian in a telephone interview. Goode said having all-day kindergarten gives struggling students additional time to capture the lessons.

Perhaps Judy Jurden, program coordinator at Phantom Lake Elementary's integrated preschool, said it best when she told lawmakers, "This is where we can really make a difference in helping kids be successful."

Achieving these early learning goals by expanding kindergarten to a full day must be a priority for this, and subsequent, state legislatures. Our kids deserve it.