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Universal access to pre-K is a laudable goal, but to succeed, family engagement must be part of the plan.

With family engagement, universal pre-K will be a success in 2022

Universal access to pre-K is a laudable goal, but to succeed, family engagement must be part of the plan

The next few years could be a turning point for those of us involved in early education, and even for education in general. As part of the American Families Plan, President Biden is aiming to set aside $200 billion to make universal pre-K a reality for the first time in this country’s history. It’s a large investment with a laudable goal, and it will no doubt help millions of children and their families if it passes.

For all the good it will undoubtedly do, however, it will ultimately fail in its goal to prepare all children for kindergarten if we don’t also focus on engaging families in their children’s academic lives.

Family engagement will be crucial to successful early education

We all know how important a teacher’s role is in a student’s success, and that extends to parents and caregivers, who are their child’s first teacher. Academic success for students requires a partnership between educators and families. If caregivers aren’t involved in what’s happening at school, they aren’t prepared to support learning at home as children grow. Furthermore, children whose families aren’t involved in their education get the message that school isn’t important to the adults in their lives.

We want children to attend pre-K because it has such a profound positive impact on their future learning. Similarly, we can set families on a path of successfully supporting their children’s education by starting early. If a model for universal pre-K provides families with the tools they need to continue education at home, it will be successful. We must include opportunities to elevate family voices and to involve them in the process to ensure they get what they need.

There are any number of issues that families could be dealing with, but in order to find out about them, we have to treat families as partners and elevate their voices. Doing this can be as informal as listening to them on an impromptu phone call or as official as sending a survey designed to find out what they need and want to be a bigger part of their school community.

By engaging families early, we strengthen the relationship between families and educators that will support students for the rest of their academic careers.

The time for new strategies is now.

It’s never a bad time to focus on family engagement, given how important it is to a child’s academic success. Right now, however, it’s particularly important because there has been so much change and uncertainty in the last couple years.

Students with limited access to school or the supports they were receiving before the pandemic have experienced learning losses, making achievement gaps wider. Students without consistent access to technology or who live in less stable environments also fell further behind, and other students had trouble making progress in basic literacy skills because their teachers’ mouths were obscured by masks as they taught phonics. The list of big and small disruptions stemming from COVID may as well be endless.

Our preschool-aged children certainly need all the love and support their families and communities can provide. Fortunately, the world of education is willing, even eager, to change at the moment. Educators are looking for new strategies to support student learning. We have whole new ways to reach families because activities that used to be relegated to school can now be done remotely. Having a student complete a science experiment at home with their caregiver wasn’t an option just a few years ago, for example, but now they can not only work on it at home with family, but they can also still chat with their classmates as they do it.

If we apply all the lessons we learned during COVID and brainstorm, together we can accomplish all the goals that we have for students and empower them to accomplish the ones they dream up for themselves.

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