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Delaware Still Lagging Behind in State-Supported Pre-K

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According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Delaware ranks 35th among states for pre-K enrollment, with only seven percent (845) of four-year olds enrolled in state-sponsored pre-K.

(To see more on pre-K enrollment across the country, check out NIEER’s State of Preschool Yearbook.)

Despite Delaware’s laudable progress in early childhood education, the fact remains that we’re below most other states when it comes to state-sponsored pre-K. Why is that figure important? As we’ve noted before, as we continue to align the pre-K and K-12 systems, we need to ensure as many kids as possible are coming to kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed. Right now, Delaware pre-K offerings are scattershot: Some providers are funded through the state, some are private businesses, while others receive a mix of private and public funding. There is little coordination or alignment between various programs.

In other states, government-funded pre-K typically carries higher standards than other childcare options when it comes to academics, staff (BAs for teachers and Child Development Associate degrees for assistants, as recommended by NIEER), and expectations on the students.

A 2002 study showed that children in Delaware participating in state-sponsored pre-K performed at a higher rate than their peers on 3rd and 5th grade state tests. Meanwhile, district-level initiatives like Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. (Verbally Intensive Literacy and Learning Activities for Growth in Education) in Indian River School District have proven successful at providing comprehensive, developmentally appropriate, and quality early childhood programming for economically challenged families in Delaware.

The stark reality is nearly half of Delaware students are entering kindergarten behind the curve, signaling the need to increase access and quality of state-sponsored pre-K—and all early learning environments that support young people from birth.

In Delaware, pre-K for four-year-olds takes many forms:

  • Delaware’s state-funded pre-K for four-year-olds is the Early Childhood Assistance Program (ECAP), which was established in 1994 and has not been expanded since. It currently serves 845 four-year-olds with a program that is three and a half hours a day for nine months a year in district, Headstart, and early childcare settings
  • Headstart (federally funded)
  • District programs (funded by Title I, Purchase of Care, 21st Century funds)
  • Community-based programs (family pay, Purchase of Care)

As Delaware considers expanding and improving pre-K in the years to come, some principles we would suggest:

  • Maintaining and increasing quality, including staff qualifications, meaningful dose and duration, curriculum, and assessment
  • A mixed delivery system (of district and community settings)
  • Alignment with K-12 standards and expectations

In order to consider expanding, we may need to better understand our current performance standards, staff qualification requirements, and funding available—and needed—for these programs.

As we’ve said many times on this blog, investments in quality early learning yield enormous returns, for students, families, and society as a whole. And Delawareans agree that getting our students off to a great start is crucial.

The 2016 Vision Coalition of Delaware Statewide Survey of Public Opinion on Education in Delaware showed that a majority of Delawareans believe in the power of quality early learning.

Close the Word Gap and Build Stronger Brains with Language Nutrition

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Investing in Education
It’s not just kids, parents, and teachers who feel the impact of our public schools. If you’re a citizen of Delaware, then you are—in one way or another—affected by our state’s education system. Check back regularly as we take a closer look at how When Students Succeed, We All Win.


Differences in the size of a child’s vocabulary first appear at 18 months—and are correlated with education and income. Dana Suskind, author of the book “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain,” offers a more comprehensive look at the word gap and what it means for student success.


Words and interactions are incredibly valuable to the rapidly developing brain of an infant. They’re so valuable that some early literacy initiatives have begun calling it “language nutrition.”

3 Implications for Our Kids and Community


  1. Interactions are key in the first few years of a child’s life. According to Harvard University’s Center of the Developing Child, parents can positively influence their children’s brain development through “serve and return interactions.” This means that when an infant or child cries, babbles, or gestures, the adult responds with eye contact, words, and touching. These interactions help build neural connections that support the child’s communication and social skills. Check out this video to see more on serve and return.
  1. Frequent, positive interactions and words matter. Higher income parents spend almost a half-hour more daily talking, interacting, or reading with their children than low-income parents. It’s not just the amount of words, it’s the type too. Positive, affirmative phrases (“please walk” versus prohibitive phrases such as “don’t run”) also have an impact on the child’s language development and a child’s stress level.


  1. The word gap matters for student academic and lifetime success. For many low-income early learners who get less face-to-face interaction (reading and speaking together), that means a higher probability of being less successful in grade school, dropping out of high school, and earning less income. To combat this, researchers are calling for programs that start earlier and that equip parents with what they need to bridge the word gap. One program called Starling is trying to do just that by partnering with nonprofits, government, daycares, schools, and other community organization to promote a device that counts words so parents and caregivers can track how much they are talking to their child. And home visiting programs, such as Nurse Family Partnership and Parents as Teachers, help families learn and practice skills to build their children’s brains.


Take Action


  • Share QT30 (Quality Time 30 Minutes) with families with young children. Delaware Thrives promotes “serve and return” among parents through age appropriate activities that encourage early childhood development.



  • Check out Parents as Teachers. Parents as Teachers programs happen across the state. The Christina Early Education Center is one example of this free early learning resource that provides parents with information on child development and activities that help build your child’s cognitive and motor skills.


Check-out the Rodel website to learn more about Delaware education policy issues from Early Learning to college and career readiness.

Third-grade Literacy’s Enormous Impact on Life

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Investing in Education
It’s not just kids, parents, and teachers who feel the impact of our public schools. If you’re a citizen of Delaware, then you are—in one way or another—affected by our state’s education system. Check back regularly as we take a closer look at how When Students Succeed, We All Win.

Third-grade literacy has an enormous impact on a child’s life. Research indicates that third grade is a critical turning point for students. A child who can read on grade level by third grade is four times more likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does not read proficiently by that time.

In Delaware, as many as 46 percent of third graders are not proficient in reading and a deeper look at the data reveals low-income, English learner, and special education populations are even more likely to miss this critical milestone.


There is work underway to improve student outcomes in early literacy. The Delaware State Board of Education is engaged in a Literacy Campaign and the state, with leadership from United Way and the State Board, has joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Literacy Campaign. Further, the Student Success 2025 Progress Report identifies early learning as a short-term priority and recommends adopting policies to increase reading by the third grade such as strengthening teacher training and preparation, literacy screenings and interventions.


This month, you can take action to shape Delaware’s state plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has developed a State ESSA Implementation Planning Grade-Level Reading Policy Priority Check-list that highlights specific policy recommendations that early learning advocates can prioritize in state ESSA Plans. The Delaware Department of Education will present the draft plan to the State Board on March 16 and is planning to submit it to U.S. Department of Education on April 3.


And if you’re interested in learning more about early literacy, here’s a short list of resources on policies and programs to increase the number of kids who reach the critical third grade literacy milestone, such as:

  1. High-quality early learning and expanded Pre-K. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), the state of Delaware ranks 33rd on access to state-funded pre-k.
  2. Family outreach and health supports that decrease chronic absenteeism
  3. High quality summer programs (like the Summer Collaborative) that decrease summer learning loss

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