Researchers at UNC's Frank Porter Graham Center found that Smart Start has improved the quality of child care. Children who attend quality child care centers do better in school.
But they say five years into the program, it is too early to prove a link between Smart Start and school preparedness.
Claudia Bazemore helps pre-schoolers prepare for kindergarten at a Raleigh day care center. The "Ready, Set, Go" club is part of the Smart Start early childhood program.
The kids are learning basic skills they'll need in the classroom, like following directions and sitting still while they listen to a story.
"We work on activities to improve fine motor skills, gross motor skills, overall kindergarten readiness," says Bazemore.
A small study of children who attended Smart Start centers in Orange County found that children from low-income families were better prepared for kindergarten.
A larger, random study of children in all Smart Start counties did not find an increase in school skills.
In all, researchers studied 200 day care centers in the counties where Smart Start began in 1994.
"I think it's doing great in its first attempt to improve the quality of child care. I would not expect to see big changes in kindergarten yet. It's too soon," says researcher Kelly Maxwell.
The study did find that Smart Start has improved the quality of child care across the state. That goes a long way towards preparing children for kindergarten.
"From the teachers we've talked to, they feel like it does make a difference," says Bazemore. "Just the social exposure that children have had to other children in a big group setting has made a big difference."
Researchers believe Smart Start will eventually lead to better skills for children when they enter kindergarten. They say improving child care is an important first step.
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