How Rural, Conservative Oklahoma Built the Nation's Best Model for Early Education
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The result is that Tulsa has become a sort of Sweden of the Ozarks—a magnet for the country’s best early-education providers and researchers and a place where preschool is a routine part of growing up. It’s a haven for both children and their parents. CAP works hard to engage adults who may have been alienated by schools in the past. To encourage parents to interact with the schools, the organization consciously decided not to provide busing. The schools’ daily schedules and yearly calendars are synced with nearby public elementary schools, with which some also share land and playgrounds, a setup that allows parents to drop off their preschoolers and scoot next door to drop off older siblings. In the same CAP buildings—which are carefully designed not to feel institutional—they can also take parenting classes, get career training, and receive financial services.
Though CAP is by mission an anti-poverty organization and serves only students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, its classrooms “don’t look like they’re for poor people,” as one mother remarked upon entering the pine cone–festooned space in which her four-year-old would be learning. Draped with natural-hued fabrics and brightened with “uplighting,” which radiates from standing lamps and is thought to be more calming than old-style fluorescent bulbs overhead, the room looks more like a spread from a Pottery Barn catalog than a traditional classroom. When you look out from its picture windows to the sprawling playground where the students are climbing and digging during outdoor playtime, and then beyond to the garden plots the kids will plant and harvest throughout the year, you can’t help wanting this for all young Americans.
The students who go to pre-K tend to emerge from the year recognizably ahead of their peers. Studies have shown it, and teachers know it. Laura Hamilton, who teaches kindergarten at Northwoods, an elementary school in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, says she easily picked out the 8 kids in her class of 25 this year who hadn’t gone to pre-K. “They’re the ones who don’t know how to line up. They’re not used to sharing, and they’re not used to drawing or writing,” she says, fishing out four of her new kindergarteners’ drawings. Three show recognizable scenes—a family of stick figures, a house with two girls in front, and a house with a sky in the background. The fourth, drawn by a child who didn’t attend pre-K, is of seemingly random scribbles. “It’s usually these kids that have to stay back and repeat kindergarten,” Hamilton says, pointing to the scribbles.
How did Oklahoma—a poor state, and one of the “reddest” in the country—become a preschooling pioneer? It wouldn’t have happened if ardent children’s advocates hadn’t been in the right positions at the right times.
Ramona Paul, who retired last year as the state’s assistant superintendent of public education, was the first to get pre-K rolling in 1980. “I still remember, it was one o’clock on a Thursday,” says Paul, a commanding, white-haired woman who worked in the state Department of Education for more than two decades. “My boss walked into my office and said, ‘Ramona, what would you like to see for four-year-old children? You just write the model, and I’ll get it funded.’”
Paul had taken part in a four-year-old program herself as a young child (“It was called nursery school back in those days,” she says), had gone on to teach preschool and college courses in child development, and was present at the Rose Garden Ceremony when President Lyndon Johnson unveiled Head Start.
The first big government early-education effort, Head Start was launched in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. The aim was to address the achievement gap. As with public schooling more broadly, public pre-K was initially seen as an alternative for economically disadvantaged children who couldn’t afford private or church schools. In Oklahoma, which ranks 20th in child poverty, there have always been a lot of those children.