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Latest Report Card Gives Smart Start High Marks

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The latest report card for

Smart Start

gives the program high marks for preparing children for school.



by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that preschool programs improve when they participate inSmart Start activities.

Children who attended higher quality day cares in the study also scored higher on measures of skills needed to thrive in kindergarten.

Karen Ponder with North Carolina Partnership for Children, Smart Start's nonprofit parent organization, said the study results,which follow more than 30 other evaluations, show that Smart Start is meeting it goal of preparing preschoolers.

"I'm very happy to say that the proof is in this report," Ponder said at a news conference in Raleigh. "We're seeing real change for young children."

Said Kelly Maxwell of the

Frank Porter Graham Institute

, one of the report's lead investigators: "We've demonstrated that children in North Carolina who attend high-quality programs have better skills than children who attend lower-quality programs."

Smart Start, which then-Gov. Jim Hunt began in 1993, is now in all 100 North Carolina counties. It is designed to improve child care in North Carolina through increasing child-care subsidies, helping teachers attend college and giving technical assistance or grants to upgrade centers.

Parenting classes and health screenings also are provided.

More than 4,400 child-care centers with nearly 86,000 children participated last year in Smart Start, administered by 82 local partnerships and funded with state and private dollars or in-kind contributions.

At least 13 other states have created similar programs modeled by Smart Start. So the study of 110 preschool child-care programs going back to 1994 and more than 500 preschoolers in North Carolina has importance nationwide, according to study presenters.

"Those positive school-readiness results automatically mean better results for our public schools and for the state's future workforce," Ponder said.

Smart Start is not without its critics. Some lawmakers question the need to fund Smart Start in addition to Gov. Mike Easley's signature program, More at Four. But, in fact, the Smart Start budget in Wake County pays for the More at Four program.

"In my opinion," said Sen. Patrick Ballentine of New Hanover County, "the pre-K children solution is to blend More at Four with Smart Start. We really don't need two separate programs."

Smart Start has taken a financial hit due to the budget crisis, losing $30 million in funding this fiscal year to $190 million.

Gov. Easley's More at Four is a focus on at-risk 4-year-olds. And he's counting on expanding the program in his new budget.

Tuesday's Smart Start study showed improvements in children's skills and in child care quality.

The study examined up to 184 child care centers in 1994 and on three other occasions. Another 112 centers where Smart Start beganin 1996 or 1997 also were examined three times.

Study authors identified the number of Smart Start activities in which they participated. Each center also was assigned a numericalvalue from 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest) for classroom quality at each examination.

The portion of centers surveyed with the highest scores (5 or above) increased over time - from 13 percent of those firstsurveyed in 1994 to 41 percent in 2002.

Study authors also interviewed child care directors and visited classrooms randomly at those centers in the first quarter of lastyear. They observed rising kindergartners and assessed them on skills and abilities such as counting numbers, story comprehensionand behavior.

The results, even when taking gender, poverty and race into account, showed that five of seven math and language skills testedwere positively related to the child-care's level of quality, the report said.

The study could help assist other states trying to determine if it can work as a public policy, a child-care expert says.

"Sometimes, we don't think we know how to make child care of a better quality and do it in a realistic way," said Aletha Huston,a professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's a very important finding."