Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic

Seeking a fix for education

The Arizona Republic
Sept. 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Monica Mendoza

Gov. Janet Napolitano today is taking a small group of educators and business leaders to North Carolina to shop for an academic miracle.

Napolitano wants to jump-start a statewide program that could give Arizona the same kind of education turnaround seen in North Carolina.

Student performance in the Southern state has swung to the top tier of academics, with dramatic increases in tests scores and declines in dropout rates.

The governor believes Arizona can pull itself up from the bottom of the education heap by investing in early education programs such as pre-kindergarten, all-day kindergarten and other early literacy efforts.

But to pull it off, Arizona would have to form a public-private partnership similar to the North Carolina program. There, the business community and the state share the $245 million annual tab for early education programs. Private businesses contributed $45 million last year in cash and in-kind donations to the Smart Start program.

The cornerstone of North Carolina's program is to spend money on education of early childhood teachers, pay for nutrition programs for mothers and infants and invest in parent education.

The North Carolina business community views its donations as an investment in economic security.

"Realtors and economic developers tell me that the first question asked by industry looking to relocate is, what is the quality of public education?" said Phil Kirk, president of the North Carolina Citizens for Business Industry and a former member of the State Board of Education.

Five years ago, 60 percent of North Carolina's students tested at grade level; today it is 80 percent.

For the business community, it means education is no longer the reason North Carolina is ruled out when industry is looking to relocate, Kirk said.

Arizona needs that kind of change. Napolitano isn't sure that North Carolina has the answers for Arizona, but business leaders here do worry over the state's ability to recruit big business. Napolitano said the state's economic success depends on whether the state can improve its public-school education system.

"I have been active in trying to recruit business to Arizona to create jobs, and one of the big issues is the quality of public education and what emphasis we will be giving it in the state," Napolitano told The Arizona Republic.

Napolitano wants to announce some kind of new early education program by January, in time for her State of the State address.

"I think people in Arizona are totally engaged in the education issue," she said.

Some say Arizona's education system needs an overhaul on many fronts. Napolitano believes early education will reap the most rewards.

Carol Peck heads the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona and is the former superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District. Free preschool programs there got started under her direction. She needs no convincing that early education can give Arizona the boost it needs.

"Early childhood education is the most cost-effective way of helping children be successful in school," Peck said.

Alhambra has four preschool programs funded by federal and state grants and money from A Stepping Stone Foundation, a local group that raises money for preschool programs.

Napolitano visited Granada Primary School in Alhambra this month to see a preschool sponsored by A Stepping Stone.

In that program, 40 children are chosen for two classes.

Parents are required to volunteer and take English classes or courses to earn a high school diploma equivalency.

In class, teachers read to the children, sing with them in English and Spanish and work on ABCs and colors. On Fridays, teachers make home visits to show parents techniques for reading and studying.

Jim Rice, Alhambra superintendent, believes the preschool programs have a lasting effect on children's learning abilities. Last year's third- and fifth-graders who attended one of the preschool programs scored at least 10 percentage points higher in all subjects of the Stanford Achievement Test and passed the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards in all subjects at higher rates than children who did not attend preschool.

"This is the type of information to get out to our Legislature," Rice said. "This is working."