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Arizona Preschools Making Progress Despite National Rankings

Arizona preschool advocates say a significant number of programs around the state have improved quality rankings over the past five years. (OksanaKosmina/Adobe)
Arizona preschool advocates say a significant number of programs around the state have improved quality rankings over the past five years. (OksanaKosmina/Adobe)
April 18, 2019

PHOENIX — A national report out this week gives Arizona preschool programs poor marks, based mainly on low enrollment numbers. But an Arizona-based advocacy group, First Things First, says the national report from Rutgers University doesn't look at all the factors that show where Arizona preschools have improved.

Liz Barker Alvarez, chief policy adviser with First Things First, said while they find the rankings in the national report helpful, the study did not use the same statistics Arizona preschool programs use to chart progress.

"If your ideal, let's say, is having a ratio of 1-to-10 students, if that is your ideal, does it mean that if you have a ratio of 1-to-11 students, that quality early learning is not taking place? Not necessarily,” Alvarez said.

She said the report from the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked states strictly on a statistical abstract, while Arizona preschools are working to develop quality standards based on the development of each individual child.

Alvarez said her group has a program called Quality First that assesses preschools and finds areas where they can improve. It also provides a coach to help with quality improvements, provides scholarships for additional staff training, and financial support to improve the learning atmosphere for young children.

One of the most important steps, Alvarez said, is an in-person evaluation of each program.

"We also include an in-person assessment of the interaction between the teachers and the children, because the research around brain development tells you that young children learn in the context of relationships,” she said.

Alvarez said preschool programs in Arizona have made significant improvements under their system over the past several years.

"When we first rated programs in 2013, only about 25 percent of them could meet or exceed the quality standards,” she said. “In our latest round of rankings, just this past year, 74 percent of them met or exceeded the standards."

First Things First is funded in Arizona by a voter-enacted tax on tobacco products. The program invests funds across the state in programs that prepare children for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ