Preschools set kids up for success but access is limited in Arizona

Apr 3, 2023, 4:35 AM

PHOENIX — Research shows preschool provides many benefits to children, but access to high quality preschool programs is limited in Arizona.

“Students that are coming into kindergarten that don’t have the preschool background, they’re already behind,” Rebecca Posey, principal at Sheely Farms Elementary School in Phoenix, told KTAR News 92.3FM.

Her school currently offers three preschool classrooms, with a fourth one being added next school year.

She said students are taught to recognize letters, shapes and numbers. They also learn social skills, such as how to interact and get along with other students.

“They’re learning those foundational skills that set them up for success academically when entering kindergarten,” she said.

Children who are enrolled in quality child care and preschool programs develop critical skills and abilities, such as motivation, self-control, focus and self-esteem. That’s according to First Things First, which funds early education and health programs for young children in Arizona.

Despite all the benefits, the latest data shows only 21% of children in Arizona ages 3 and 4 are in preschool and other quality learning settings. That’s far from the statewide goal of 45%, according to Education Forward Arizona, which points to the economic benefits of early learning.

The education advocacy group cites multiple studies that show investing in quality early learning generates a return on investment of $7 to $8 for every $1 invested.

Lupita Hightower, superintendent of the Tolleson Elementary School District, said limited access to funding is one reason why there aren’t more toddlers enrolled in preschool.

“Every year we have to go and try to find funds for preschool, because we do know how critical instruction is,” she said.

Hightower explained there isn’t as much funding for preschool as there is for K-12, though several initiatives and grant programs are available.

Finding preschool teachers is also a constant struggle, which Hightower noted limits how many students her district can serve.

“The goal for us would be to have 300 preschool students, and that’s not the case right now,” she said.

Hightower’s district is working to change that through a “Grow Your Own” partnership with Northern Arizona University. This allows anyone interested in becoming a teacher a chance to pursue an NAU degree tuition-free.

Tanya Elias is part of the program right now. She has been helping in the classroom as a paraprofessional for more than two decades.

“I really wanted to be a teacher, but finances just wouldn’t allow me to go pay ahead of time,” Elias said, explaining why she hadn’t pursued a teaching degree. “And with this program, it’s all paid for upfront.”

She’s three years away from earning her teaching degree but is already in front of the classroom.

“I love it. It’s fun. The love I get every day from the kids is great,” she said. “What I’m teaching them is working. It’s coming along very well.”

But even with programs like these, finding preschool teachers to hire can be difficult.

Christina Peoples is a preschool teacher at Desert Oasis Elementary School. Next door to her is an empty preschool classroom that couldn’t open this school year because the district couldn’t find a teacher to hire.

“We have an empty classroom with beautiful furniture that’s ready to be filled,” Peoples said. “And parents are ready to bring their kids.”

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Preschools set kids up for success but access is limited in Arizona