Education

Local educators respond to State of the Union address

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. AP photo

It was a touching State of the Union address Tuesday night for at least one instructor at Penn State’s College of Education who said it made her proud to be an early childhood educator.

Linda Duerr said she was emotional when she saw President Barack Obama get a standing ovation when he mentioned prekindergarten should be available to all families in the country with young children.

“That’s a first,” she said. “It was the first time I have ever seen Congress stand up no matter what party, during the very brief mention to pre-K being more accessible for children. It was mindblowing for me, and gratifying.”

Obama has a vision to provide pre-K for all.

At least that’s what he said in his last State of the Union address Tuesday night when he spoke about presecondary education.

And it’s something he’s addressed the past couple of years.

But it’s also a vision that stretches beyond federal government.

A Pennsylvania-based campaign was established in 2014 to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old in the commonwealth has access to high-quality pre-K by 2018.

Pre-K for PA, according to the initiative’s website, has about 11,000 members involved in the fight to enhance preschool education.

$120 million in 2015-16 fiscal year could allow additional pre-K services to 14,000 Pennsylvania children.

The Pre-K for PA campaign supports an investment of $120 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year, allowing high-quality pre-K for an additional 14,000 children, a report from the initiative said.

But the fight is still there to get more pre-K or preschool programs in Centre County, especially in rural settings.

The biggest issues in pre-K are accessibility, affordability and quality, local educators said.

From educators

Some local educators said they’re seeing little effects of what Obama aimed to do, though they’re hopeful that could change.

“What needs to happen in order to get pre-K, especially in an area like Bald Eagle that doesn’t have any programs, of course, is funding,” said Jim Orichosky, Wingate Elementary School principal and district director of elementary education. “Funding is huge, and the ideal situation is that Bald Eagle, as a school district, would have its own fully funded pre-K program.”

BEA has 1,670 students in 4 elementary schools and a combined middle and high school.

Bald Eagle Area, according to district spokeswoman Rose Hoover, is a rural school district with about 1,670 students in four elementary schools and a combined middle and high school.

A full-day preschool program through CenClear Child Services, is, however, offered at Port Matilda and Wingate elementary schools.

Orichosky said the Philipsburg-based provider offers the program at no cost to the district. But it’s not available to all families of young children who live in the district.

“It’s income based, which I think is important, because you have families who work hard and want the best for their child, but cannot afford some programs,” Orichosky said. “On the other hand, there are other families in similar situations, but don’t meet requirements, which prevent them from sending their children to preschool.”

The CenClear preschool within the district serves 18 children, all 4 years old, Orichosky said.

“I think it’s a world education problem,” Orichosky said. “We’re not the only area. We had a lot of churches that had preschool, but they’re not functioning anymore. Our parents would have to go to Bellefonte or State College for preschool programs if they’re not eligible for CenClear. It’s inconvenient. We should be able to have a local preschool.”

Pre-K benefits

Educators think preschool should be a prerequisite for students heading into kindergarten.

And Duerr said it isn’t just about academics.

When you think about that in terms of school, we think about academics. But you cannot be academically ready until you’re socially and emotionally ready. That’s the first experience a child has in terms of a group setting outside of family. It helps build relationships, build a foundation and helps with transition.

Linda Duerr, instructor of early childhood education at Penn State’s College of Education

“When you think about that in terms of school, we think about academics,” she said. “But you cannot be academically ready until you’re socially and emotionally ready. That’s the first experience a child has in terms of a group setting outside of family. It helps build relationships, build a foundation and helps with transition.”

Orichosky said Bald Eagle Area elementary schools hold an annual KinderCamp for students heading into kindergarten.

It includes a weeklong introduction to what kindergarten is like. Students are able to meet their teachers, participate in class activities and learn school rules before the first day of kindergarten.

“We put the students through that, and we can usually tell who spent time in preschool because they’re acclimated with group settings and recognize basic things,” Orichosky said.

But his hope is to get more funding to enhance pre-K or preschool.

That’s what it really comes down to. We hear a lot of great things from the state or in (Washington) D.C., but hope it becomes a reality.

Jim Orichosky, Wingate Elementary School principal and BEA director of elementary education

“That’s what it really comes down to,” Orichosky said. “We hear a lot of great things from the state or in (Washington) D.C., but hope it becomes a reality.”

SOTU reaction

Founder and President of The Center for Education Reform Jeanne Allen released a statement via email about the State of the Union address.

“Education is not about space, a place, or time,” she said. “Education is not a brick and mortar building; it is not about one person, concentrated on one methodology, or about one option. Innovative education transcends such confines to ensure that our students are prepared to be the future of our country.”

She said that in his first State of the Union address in 2009, Obama stated, “that is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education, from the day they are born to the day they begin a career. That is a promise we have to make to the children of America.”

“We’ll give the Obama administration credit for keeping education in the public eye, for drawing more Democrats into discussing reforms such as charter schools, and by elevating the debate,” she said. “There is a long way to go to remedy the top-down approach to education reform that has occurred over the last seven years, especially the Obama administration turning a blind eye toward school choice for the poor, but thanks are in order for giving progressive Democrats numerous reasons to become more actively involved.”

Unfortunately, she said, “this activity does not produce the results needed to help our students succeed.”

Despite national graduation rates touted at 82 percent, according to a report from the Center for Education Reform, students still lack proficiency in the basic necessities of life such as reading and mathematics, “and do not possess the knowledge necessary to preserve our freedom and ensure America’s national and international success.”

What we find is that preschool is a good foundation for young children. Studies show they generally do better in school, and this helps for their future.

Jim Orichosky

“What we find is that preschool is a good foundation for young children,” Orichosky said. “Studies show they generally do better in school, and this helps for their future.”

And Duerr mimicked that.

Making strides

Duerr also said she thinks the state has made progress to enhance early education, especially in the State College area, but realizes there is more work to be done.

“In terms of putting it locally I think that the state of Pennsylvania has made huge strides in the last couple years regarding pre-K,” she said. “The issues are accessibility, affordability and quality. But how do you measure quality?”

She said that locally, she has seen an increase for pre-K for children ages 3 to 5, but there are few options available for those younger than that.

“We still have children as young as 6 months on waiting lists, but I’ve seen improvement, especially in our department with how to educate and handle human services and early childhood development for children younger than 3. We recognize there is a need for that.”

Her biggest fear, however, is that a “generic” system would be created for pre-K, she said.

I fear there could be a set of standards for everyone, but we know from research and experience that children learn differently, and that it’s not just about academics.

Linda Duerr

“I fear there could be a set of standards for everyone, but we know from research and experience that children learn differently, and that it’s not just about academics,” Duerr said.

She mentioned a quote she introduces to her students at the beginning of the semester: “The prime purpose of being 4 is to enjoy being 4.”

“Programs are not put there to push them to be 5,” she said.

But Duerr said she is pleased with bipartisan support for preschool education.

“What we need to do to make sure it’s available for all children and families, and after seeing the support during the State of the Union, I’m proud to be an early childhood practitioner,” she said.

Local educators said the only way to enhance and improve pre-K and preschool is to work with local legislators to help find ways to fund programs.

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo

Segment of the State of the Union speech from President Barack Obama regarding education:

We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing pre-K for all and offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one. We should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.

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